In the aftermath of the hiking of salaries of members of the political directorate by the Government, (by up to 300% – over three years), the Minister of Finance Nigel Clarke and Prime Minister Andrew Holness in seeking to justify the increases, promised that there would be “enhanced accountability measures”. Among the measures promised (and the word ‘promised’ is to be noted for reasons which will be apparent as shown below) are:
- The issuing of Job Descriptions (promised since 2016)
- Code of Ethics for Members of Parliament
- Financial penalties for unexplained absences from parliament
- Written accountability reports to be done by MPs
- Special training for MPs and Senators.
There is a degree of distress that I feel when I hear the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance, advancing these as “accountability” measures. Here is why.
- Job Descriptions
The Holness administration had promised to issue job descriptions (JDs) to all Cabinet Ministers within the first 100 days of taking office in February 2016. That did not happen. There was another General Election in September of 2020, and the job descriptions were not issued. At the Press Conference called on May 22, 2023, to quell the public angst over the massive salary hikes, the PM promised to implement those JDs, but disclosed (or let slip) that the JDs were completed from 2021!
If the Government were serious about accountability, would it not have implemented those JDs in 2021? Based on this, one must ask whether the promise of 2023 will be any different from 2016.
- Code of Ethics
There is a Code of Ethics that candidates for election sign under the supervision of the (now defunct) Office of the Ombudsman. Many do not sign. The Integrity Commission has developed a Code of Conduct which it has invited the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition to sign. The Leader of the Opposition has, but the Prime Minister has not as much as acknowledged the letter of invitation from the Integrity Commission.
Against this background I ask two questions: (1) Do we really need another Code? (2) If the Prime Minister has shown such scant regard for the Code promulgated by the Integrity Commission, what moral authority does he have to issue a Code of Ethics and invite others to sign?
- Financial penalties for “unexplained” absences
The operative here is “unexplained”. This so-called accountability is laughable and raises five questions, namely:
- Does any and any explanation suffice?
- If the answer to (a) is “No”, then who adjudicates?
- What are the levels of penalty and who determines them? (Parliamentarians?)
- What is the role of due process?
- How much of a deterrent is that likely to be if the penalties are at the level of pennies?
- Written accountability reports
The Prime Minister himself has acknowledged that there already exists the State of the Constituency” presentations. What will these reports do that is different? Who will interrogate them? What will they be designed to accomplish?
- Special training for MPs and Senators
I support this measure, in principle, and have been calling for something of this kind since 2017. The question to be answered is whether failure to comply with the tenets of the training would have consequences and if so, in what form?
Is the Government serious?
Given the context of the extensive time lapse since some promises were made, the importance of the issues to which they relate, and their being discussed (again) only after there had been backlash over massive salary increases, one must wonder if the government is serious. The referencing of these matters now, given the ample opportunity there has been for action, makes the expressed intentions appear convenient and even capricious.
Jamaica has a right to expect better from its leaders regardless of the salary they are paid.
Larger accountability debate
One of the forms I have argued that accountability for public officials should take is assessments for financial penalties for bad decisions, which the decision-maker knew or ought to have known is bad, when those decisions cost the taxpayer without benefit to the public. The current situation in which the government has spent billions of dollars producing new banknotes which are not readable by the network of automated teller machines (ATMs) poses a potential problem and again several questions arise, including:
- What was the level of preparation, led by the government and involving the financial sector, for the introduction of these new banknotes?
- Was there a documented series of steps and an assigned government officer overseeing the process?
- Was it knowable that the existing network of ATMs could not read these new notes?
- If it were not known who is culpable?
- What is the cost, if any, to the taxpayer for the late discovery of obstacles?
Is the Minister of Finance culpable?
In my assessment, a matter so significant and far-reaching as the changeover of banknotes ought to have been closely supervised by the Minister of Finance. Details of the process of implementation should have been blueprinted and monitored by him on a meticulous basis. The available information does not suggest that the Minister of Finance could not have known about the state of the existing ATMs so the current situation must be owned by him, ultimately. The buck stops with the Minister.
If the buck stops with the Minister, then what does this mean?
In a system built on accountability a Minister having so badly mismanaged a process ought to face financial penalties, if the taxpayer had to pay more than what was budgeted, and should be asked to resign, or voluntarily resign.
There can be no talk about accountability without the existence of a law on impeachment. This law would, among other things, provide for the recall of an under-performing Member of Parliament, or the removal from office of a Minister or Senator who has violated some ethical standards, broken the law, misused public funds, or otherwise brought the office he or she holds into verifiable disrepute.
That Prime Minister Holness promised an Impeachment Bill “within the first 100 days” of his 2016 administration and has said nothing about it since, should itself be an impeachable offense! That the Government has completely ignored draft Impeachment Bills tabled by the Opposition is testimony to how unserious and uncommitted the Holness administration is to real accountability. Jamaica deserves better. Citizens should demand better.
Professor Canute Thompson is Professor of Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and Head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning. He is author of two award-winning books and articles, among his collection of eight books and over a dozen journal articles, and the operator of leadershipreimagination.com website.