Thursday, December 14, 2017

Every man for himself?

 In the wake of allegations by Patricia Singh that fired minister Dr Glenn Ramadharsingh had forced her to pleasure him with certain sex acts before he could help her acquire a State-built house, the Express has reported some of his erstwhile colleagues are “distancing themselves from the matter”, with one of them, unnamed, remarking “it is every man for himself”. 

It is an unfortunate remark, in every way.

I suppose, following the maxim “What ent meet you ent pass you” and aware of their own vulnerabilities in the wielding of the power of high office, other male ministers must take steps to protect themselves from similar effects, but I am pretty sure a public response of resort to a self-oriented perspective is indefensible in this case. Which is why the minister was not named.

Such a response suggests flippancy and a lack of ethical maturity and leadership in both the minister and the Cabinet. It is not what the public should come to expect from people elevated to office and in the public trust chiefly on the public vote. Many people expect fair play and respect in the exercise of power, so it follows that when an office holder is accused of abuse of power, these people expect a response from similar office holders that matches the allegation in seriousness. Singh’s charges, whether true or false, are quite serious ones that deserve a serious response—not one that is escapist, self-oriented or flippant. Which is how I see the unnamed minister’s remark of every man being for himself.

In the face of such an allegation, all ministers, as putative servants of the people, should be prepared to comment, but they should do so responsibly, that is, in a manner that promotes trust in the way we are governed. The unnamed minister should have, and could have, responded that Singh’s allegation, whether true or false, was a serious one which the Cabinet would be taking seriously and, if it turned out to be true, would have grave consequences. He would go on to say, as the Prime Minister declared in her firing of Ramadharsingh, that the Cabinet operates on the basis of values, including integrity and mutual respect, and these values would be applied to every charge of ministerial conduct.

But when a minister responds it is every man for himself, we may suspect he has skeletons in the cupboard, but we know he dwells on very low ground and, even then, is like chaff easily driven by the wind into the survivalist mode of self-protection.

Such a man could not be a man of integrity and honour, never mind his title of “Honourable”. Nor could he be a leader worth the people’s trust. But he is in the Cabinet, the highest council in the land, and so we must ask, first of all: what is he doing there? And we must ask the same of those Cabinet colleagues of his who “[distanced] themselves from the matter”. 

But because we know the people we elect for office include many who are more concerned about themselves than the people, who are more about aggrandising themselves than improving the quality of our lives and our democracy, and who go into the Cabinet quite simply to steal from the treasury in various ways, we must next ask: how do we constrain their bad ways and their bad actions?

How do we constrain abuse of power by a minister? How do we constrain a minister who gives patronage for sexual gain? How do we constrain ministers who make much of their living by stealing from the public purse?

In the case of Ramadharsingh and the flight attendant, we relied on the Prime Minister. It was she who made him minister, so it was up to her to terminate him. Yes, some of us brought pressure on her by calling for his dismissal, but she appears to have acted in her own judgment after reading various reports. She could have chosen not to terminate him. In the case also of former minister Chandresh Sharma, who resigned—was he forced to by the inner circle?—we relied on her as well. She could have refused his resignation, though.

Is the Prime Minister acting at his/her own discretion our only way out in these circumstances? Isn’t prime ministerial discretion too subjective, given that errant ministers are appointed by her/him and would most likely belong to her/his party? Wouldn’t it be better for us to have hea­rings by an independent, properly sized Senate whenever matters like alleged ministerial misconduct arise? 

And what about ministerial theft, particularly in the form of kickbacks? The Prime Minister has not fired anybody yet for taking kickbacks, and yet it is an established public secret many in her Cabinet do. If she can’t fire corrupt ministers, who can? Could our reorganised senate and its hearings do the trick?

If we restructure our democracy by not relying as heavily on the Prime Minister, we will more quickly get to the point where ministers have more integrity and won’t be reduced to saying in the face of serious charges, “It is every man for himself.”

One more thing—if it is every man for himself, what kind of Government do we have?

• Winford James is a UWI lecturer and political analyst.

(Timothy Hamel-Smith’s series on constitutional re-engineering will resume next week).