Sun | Nov 28, 2021

Peter Espeut | Accountability, indemnification and surcharge

Published:Friday | October 15, 2021 | 12:06 AM
There are many – myself included – who hoped that Andrew Holness – the first prime minister of Jamaica born after independence – would have broken away from old-style politics and corruption, and would really build a new Jamaica as the place of cho
There are many – myself included – who hoped that Andrew Holness – the first prime minister of Jamaica born after independence – would have broken away from old-style politics and corruption, and would really build a new Jamaica as the place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business. Maybe we expected too much.

Often, people in positions of authority want to have it both ways: they want the credit and the accolades when things go well, but they wish to avoid accountability for failure, or when things go wrong.

What works for football coaches does not work for politicians and public servants. When the team consistently loses, calls mount for the coach to go. And he usually quickly packs his bags. Other good and better coaches abound.

When millions of dollars of public funds cannot be accounted for, or when poor judgement leads to financial downturn or loss of human life, everyone seems covered with Teflon, and the captains turn to spin in an attempt to mystify the critics and commentators.

In certain limited circumstances, public servants are indemnified from accountability. Politicians, for example, may not be sued for defamation or slander when they make allegations as they speak in the Houses of Parliament. But are public servants immune from prosecution if they make errors of judgement, or worse, if they misappropriate public funds?

The practice in Jamaica is to require politicians to resign from their executive posts when egregious malfeasance is discovered, but I know of not one single case where misappropriated funds were returned to the public purse. And rarely do they resign from Parliament; in fact, disgraced politicians are usually selected to run in subsequent general elections as if nothing happened!

HAS THIS EVER HAPPENED?

When government land or buildings are improperly transferred to the politically or genetically connected, has the transaction ever been reversed? When contracts are entered into without the proper procurement procedures being followed, have they ever been cancelled or those responsible ever been fined or imprisoned?

I take note that this week the auditor general has recommended that the acting permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education be surcharged for funds she is alleged to have improperly disbursed. Has this ever happened before?

Was the money spent to build the ‘missing schools’ in the 1960s ever recovered? Was the value lost in the Cuban Light Bulb Scandal ever repaid? Or in the Furniture Scandal? Or in the Shell Waiver Scandal? Or in the series of Petrojam scandals?

When public servants run up millions of dollars in cell phone charges on the government’s account due to negligence, are they surcharged and the funds recovered? When public servants hire unqualified persons – usually their friends, family, or political cronies – in high-paying public-sector jobs, are they surcharged for the funds improperly spent in paying these persons? Are those persons improperly employed terminated from their jobs and required to repay their salaries?

It seems to me that not only is there a lack of accountability for malfeasance in government, but there is profit in it! If your impropriety is discovered, you and your cronies are allowed to limp away with your ill-gotten gains, to return another day soon when the storm blows over. The system works for corrupt politicians. There is a de facto if not a de jure indemnification for losses and failures which take place when public servants are on the job. Yet it is only justice that politicians should pay reparations for their wrongdoing, as others are required to do.

The corruption in Jamaican politics turns off many people with properly formed consciences, but it seems to attract other persons like moths to flames. In which other profession can you ‘teef’, and when you are caught, your colleagues – and those on the other side – collaborate to allow you to withdraw with your boodle and just a rap on the knuckles?

The other side may mouth off, but they know their turn at the wicket will come one day, and they expect to be allowed to collect their scarce benefits and spoils, too.

POLITICAL AND MORAL STALEMATE

There are many – myself included – who hoped that Andrew Holness – the first prime minister of Jamaica born after independence – would have broken away from old-style politics and corruption, and would really build a new Jamaica as the place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business.

Maybe we expected too much.

Jamaica’s political culture requires corruption to grease the moving parts. There are too many people in it out to get something for themselves rather than to work for the common good. Those who try to change the system will be quickly chewed up and spit out!

What is depressing is that the alternative government-in-waiting appears to be no better. Calling for change will not bring change in behaviour, only change in faces and names. Neither side wishes real accountability, nor advocates for it.

How can decent citizens bring about real change in a situation like this? The politicians refuse to enact meaningful anti-corruption legislation, and collude to serially loot the public purse.

The private sector supports (and funds) one or both parties, and has an interest in maintaining the system.

The intellectual ghetto is ideologically bankrupt, and the Church has lost its prophetic voice. We are at a political and moral stalemate!

What would you do?

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com