Monday, February 19, 2018

Looking for legal loopholes...


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"We have promised the people a coalition government united behind the key principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility," the Prime Minister wrote in May 2010. "Every day of this Government we must make good on that promise, acting in a way that reflects these principles…

"We must be different in how we think and how we behave. We must be different from what has gone before us. Careful with public money. Transparent about what we do and how we do it. Determined to act in the national interest, above improper influence."

Sadly, the Prime Minister who wrote that is not Kamla Persad-Bissessar, but David Cameron of the United Kingdom. So his words would no doubt be classed as "colonial nonsense" by Works Minister Jack Warner.

With that fragrant red herring, Mr Warner dismissed criticism of Dr Fuad Khan's moonlighting as a urologist while also working as Minister of Health.

Dr Khan himself, surprised in his scrubs, managed to be both furtive and defiant. He hadn't told the Prime Minister he was still practising, because it would "cause her stress"—but admitted he should have told her. Nevertheless, those who saw a problem with what he was doing were just jealous. He wasn't doing anything illegal.

Some of Dr Khan's Cabinet colleagues agreed with him and Mr Warner.

That was the part that made you want to tear your hair out: not that Dr Khan was doing something he shouldn't, but the wilful wrongheadedness that led him to do it and the desire to go on doing it even when told it was wrong.

Even after the Prime Minister's intervention, Dr Khan did not dismount from his high horse, but wheeled it on the spot and galloped in the opposite direction. He still didn't acknowledge he'd done anything wrong, but said he was now acting on "the principles of integrity and sound ethical conduct''.

Perhaps he learned of them from the Prime Minister, who thankfully came to the right conclusion this time, even if it's not easy to see how she reached it. Her explanation of why she had told Dr Khan he must choose between his two jobs was far from reassuring.

She told reporters she had been "advised by the Attorney General on Sunday of a code of ethics for parliamentarians."

Now, Ms Persad-Bissessar has been in Parliament since 1994. The code of ethics was issued in 1987. Even if it had slipped her mind, the country was reminded of the code's existence last year, when it was cited in relation to Mr Warner's desire to wear two hats.

If the Prime Minister didn't know the code existed, then presumably her Cabinet didn't know either. So are there other ministers who are not complying with it?

Worryingly, the Prime Minister even found it necessary to explain what a code of ethics is. She reportedly said the code "is not law but gives a full explanation…It doesn't have the force of law."

Perhaps not; but doctors and lawyers can be struck off for unethical conduct.

As a person, Dr Khan has always seemed like a decent bloke, and decent people are bound by ethics too. Contrary to what governments in tight corners would have us believe, ethics are not trivial or nebulous; nor are they sphinx-like conundrums to be deciphered only by lawyers.

It's not illegal to tell lies, or to betray a friend's confidence; but that doesn't make it right. To dismiss a code of ethics by saying it "doesn't have the force of law" is no excuse.

The code for ministers is refreshingly clear. By his own admission, Dr Khan contravened the clause that says: "At meetings of the Cabinet and its committees, a minister should disclose to his colleagues when he has an interest which does, or might reasonably be thought likely to, conflict with his public duty as a minister."

The code also rules that: "Ministers…should cease to engage in professional practice; and they should cease to be involved in the daily routine work of any business."

The saddest thing about this affair is that it shows how the Government has fallen short of the standards it set for itself. Its response, yet again, has been not to apologise for the mistake but to refuse to admit it and look for legal loopholes to wriggle through.

The passage from David Cameron quoted at the start of this column is from his foreword to the British ministerial code. It demonstrates not only that Mr Cameron is aware there is such a code, but also that ethical behaviour is not an optional extra but a crucial element of the overarching aim of his government.

The colonial nonsense he addressed to his ministers applies precisely to Ms Persad-Bissessar's Cabinet: "Our new government has a particular and historic responsibility: to rebuild confidence in our political system. After the scandals of recent years, people have lost faith in politics and politicians…It is not enough simply to make a difference. We must be different."

If a whole code of ethics is too much for ministers to cope with, it could be simplified for them: ask yourself, "What's the right thing to do?"—not "What can I get away with?"