Trevor Munroe | Strengthening transparency to catch the corrupt
A February 2018 survey of political culture of democracy in Jamaica found that three of every four Jamaicans believed that half or more of our politicians are corrupt. A Don Anderson poll in 2019 found that Jamaicans believed that 73 per cent of politicians are “definitely corrupt”. At the same time, many of us, including me, know politicians from both sides who put “service above self” and some of whom, including ministers, retire from politics and cannot make two ends meet. Some of our most prominent leaders, such as Edward Seaga and Michael Manley, could never be seriously accused of using public office for their personal gain.
On the other hand, we see with our own two eyes other politicians who enter the House with modest means and leave politics as wealthy individuals despite the unacceptably low salaries paid to MPs. In other countries, many such politicians whose growth of assets cannot be explained by their legal sources of income are investigated, charged, and often sent to jail. In Jamaica, this rarely happens. In the 10 years before Independence, two ministers were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms for corruption. In the 58 years since Independence, one minister has been convicted and jailed for corruption.
In contrast, in the United Kingdom, arising from an investigation report by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, the director of public prosecutions charged and prosecuted a number of members of Parliament for abuse of parliamentary allowances. Between 2011 and 2012, six members of the House of Commons and two members of the House of Lords were convicted and sentenced to between six and 18 months in jail. In Malaysia, on July 28, 2020, former Prime Minister Najib Razak was found guilty of money laundering and other corruption charges, and the Kuala Lumpur High Court sentenced him to 12 years in prison.
In Jamaica, over the last 30 years, ministers have faced credible allegations of misconduct or corruption. Each such minister has either been allowed to resign, and in some cases, has been reappointed. In other instances, the minister has been demoted or transferred. Accountability has not extended to convictions in court much less to prison sentences. Equally disturbing, ministers with the constitutional responsibility to exercise “general direction and control” over departments and agencies within their portfolio have faced few or no consequences when a public board appointed by the minister and approved by the Cabinet wastes or misspends hundred or millions of public monies. The most recent case unearthed by the auditor general relates to the Jamaica Urban Transit Company.
One reason for the irresponsible and often lawless conduct of public boards is that ministers, over many years and across administrations, are free to appoint friends and partisans to these boards without any statutory obligation to select persons with skill, competence, or experience. Such boards flaunt the law with impunity by not making timely annual reports as required by the Public Bodies Management Accountability Act. Imagine that such boards, between April 2019 and March 2020, were responsible for awarding more than 21,000 contracts, often in breach of procurement law, valued at over $137 billion.
This widespread impunity whereby those who make and administer the law are above the law continues to undermine confidence in Jamaica’s democratic institutions, including elections, where the percentage voter turnout in 2016 was the lowest in our 70-odd years of Adult Suffrage Elections as well as the lowest in the Western Hemisphere.
The time is now for us to come together – honest politicians from both sides and public servants of integrity, private-sector organisations and civil-society bodies, citizen associations and youth groups, the ordinary citizen – to support reforms that can give our people a better chance to prevent, detect, and prosecute the corrupt.
LAW MUST BE STRENGTHENED
• The law requiring public servants to declare income, assets, and liabilities must be strengthened and enforced.
Between 2011 and 2016, almost 30 members of Parliament were reported to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for breaches relating to the filing of statutory declarations under the Parliament Integrity of Members Act. Minimal or no sanctions followed. Happily, for the year 2019-2020, for the first time that I can recall, since the 1975 law required the filing of statutory declarations, all members of Parliament filed on time.
We must support the Integrity Commission – henceforth, no late filings will be tolerated. Similarly, we should support and call on the Parliamentary Oversight Committee to accept the Amendment of the Integrity Commission Act, which would require statutory declarations from parliamentarians to include “contracts with the Government; Directorships/Beneficial interest in corporate bodies ... in land; trustee or beneficiary of a trust; and any other substantial interest that may result in a potential conflict of interest”. Such information is required by law in the United Kingdom, he United States, Malaysia, and other democracies.
• Statutory declarations by Parliamentarians should be open to scrutiny by the Jamaican public in the same way that similar declarations are open to the British, American, Malaysian public, or, for that matter, to anyone who wishes to review the declarations, which are online. This is an important tool for the public and anti-corruption institution to check on whether and how their leaders’ assets and income are improving legally or illicitly from year to year.
• The identity of donors who make contributions above a certain amount to political candidates, political parties, and election campaigns should be disclosed, not only to the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, but be open to the public at large. Disclosure should not only be required during the campaign “reporting period”, but at regularly designated intervals, on a continuing basis, as is done in the United Kingdom and the United States. The public needs to be empowered to watch over whether such big donors are getting, in return for contributions, contract awards, land, licences or board memberships at the public expense.
• The Public Bodies Management Accountability Act must be amended to ensure that public boards exclude MPs and councillors, and, as regulations tabled by Minister of Finance Clarke requires, include persons chosen on the basis of skill, competence, and experience. Additionally, as now proposed, the law needs to provide for an element of membership continuity across administrations, impose limits on the number of terms as well as the number of boards on which any individual can sit or chair. Such reforms would reduce ‘cronyism’, broaden opportunities for persons genuinely interested in service, and strengthen integrity in the stewardship of public funds.