Saturday, February 17, 2018

Is she ready for the work?


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Now that her dwindling popularity has awakened the Prime Minister, let's talk about the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) election campaign. It highlights various forms of political and institutional failure, each permitting corruption to flourish. Out front, the campaign has shown the Integrity in Public Life Act to be a hopeless piece of legislation. The PM must face the reality that all allegations of corruption will hurt her ratings.

Contrary to the PM's initial feelings, the lower ratings are not caused by the Government's failure to deliver the message that it has been getting things done. It's caused by events like the THA election, a vulgar sale of power and influence to private interests, through the financing of elections to public office. And, this can only happen because of the weakness of the Integrity in Public Life Act and Representation of the People Act, the Integrity Commission (IC) and the Election and Boundaries Commission (EBC), the Office of the Auditor General, and the various Committees of Parliament.

The Integrity in Public Life Act declares an intention to make provisions for the prevention of corruption by persons in public life by providing for public disclosure. That same Act later conceals the filings from public view, and is so bureaucratic that failure to provide the disclosures required by the legislation is not prosecuted until years after the fact. So where is this public disclosure? How will the public assure itself that persons in public life are free from corruption, when pertinent information is not declared and, if it is, it is not available to the public?

Even as deficient as the Integrity in Public Life Act is, if the PM does not personally insist on adherence to the Act, her ratings problem will continue. Did the PM miss TOP leader Ashworth Jack's disclosure that Minister of National Security Jack Warner gave him a lift on a National Security helicopter used by Warner to get to a THA election campaign meeting in Tobago? And, did the PM also miss the fact that the Code of Conduct in the Integrity in Public Life Act makes it clear that a public official shall not use public property for activities not related to his official work?

The PM, as leader of the People's Partnership, may also have missed the many unanswered questions regarding Ashworth Jack's personal finances, and his failure to meet the requirements of the Integrity in Public Life Act, specifically the declarations for 2010 and 2011. The Act declares an intention to preserve and promote the integrity of public officials and institutions. But, how is the Act going to work when Ashworth Jack can contend for the position of THA Chief Secretary without having complied with the basic requirements of being in public life? How in the face of a governance framework that is broken, can Jack be given more authority and responsibility when he cannot meet the requirements of his current position?

It would be interesting to see whether at the end of this election, the EBC commissioners would dare to step out of the box in their usual post-election report, and express an opinion on the absurdity of someone being allowed to contest for public office without fulfilling this basic requirement of public office. If history is any guide, the EBC will do no such thing until the law compels the Commission to be full and frank in its analysis of the country's elections.

Of course, given the allegations against Mr Jack regarding his direct and indirect income, profits and gains, and possible conflicts of interest, it is the IC which has a statutory responsibility to act on its own initiative in a timely manner so that the aspersions may be dealt with while the campaign is underway. But, if the PM is wary of her ratings, she should not wait on the Commission to act, but demand the explanations. In failing to do so, the PM's ratings will suffer.

The PM's ratings will also respond to the close attention she has been paying to the THA's modus operandi, much of which has been ventilated in the election campaign. Certainly, it is difficult to figure out how the THA moved from various exchanges with the Government on financing its developmental needs, to a negotiating position with a private company with family links to the political party of which the THA's Chief Secretary is deputy political leader. The PM's handling of the investigations and audits will be closely watched by the public burdened by the heavy cost of corruption. At the same time, the public will be appreciative of an equal sense of urgency with all allegations of corruption involving its resources.

Political proximity and a public sector project contractual award were not considered in the 227 Milshirv pages disclosed by the THA. Unfortunately, none of the legal and other opinions presented by the THA on those arrangements considered the appropriateness of the PNM-controlled THA dealing directly with a company with possible family links to the party. How could any sensible public body overlook the elephant in the room?

Whether it is the PNM or TOP, the fact is that this election campaign has an undercurrent of significant private funding to the political cause, no element of which has to be disclosed to the public. The country's election laws are pathetic, incapable of controlling the outright sale of public office to private bidders, but just as incapable of controlling ethnic slurs and ill-will on the platform.

Now that the falling ratings have awakened the PM, she must deal with the failure of legislation, institutions, and officials at the heart of the fight against corruption. If she had any doubts, the THA election campaign is surely a reminder that politics and corruption remain bedfellows.

(Happy birthday to my mother, Lynn)

Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and university lecturer