February 17, 2023
One of the issues which countries and organizations continue to debate is how the written and unwritten standards of leadership are to be applied when there is apparent leadership failure, for example when a head of government or chief executive faces exposure for apparent or suspected wrongdoing. In some countries, such as the United Kingdom, the conventions are clear. If a government minister is plausibly accused of an ethics violation or misdeed bordering on illegality, his or her resignation is almost instantaneous.
Among the examples from the United Kingdom are Priti Patel who resigned after being accused of bullying civil servants, who at the time of her resignation was Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advisor on the Ministerial Code. Then there was the case of David Blunkett who was pensions secretary under the then prime minister, Tony Blair. He resigned for breaching the ministerial code of conduct over paid work he took while out of the cabinet.
There were several other cases including the famous (or infamous) partygate scandal at No 10 Downing Street. In this case, which ultimately led to the toppling of the Boris Johnson administration, government officials were having fun at the Prime Minister’s official residence during COVID-19 lockdowns. Although Boris Johnson apologized and paid fines, those were not enough to stem the fallout which saw him leaving office in disgrace.
The central element of these resignations was that a leader who had violated public trust could not continue in a position in which trust is reposed. Similar examples of leaders stepping down from office for having breached public trust, exist in other countries, such as Singapore, Finland, New Zealand and Thailand, all of which have high ethical standards for holders of public office.
To whom much is given is more required: The theory of deontology
The biblical and ethical principle which states that to whom much is given is more required remains a sacred leadership standard. People who make the rules and laws must be first and most exemplary in upholding those rules. This way of leading is the chief means by which leaders can appeal to the consciences of those they lead. If the standard is right, leaders must show its rightness by acting according to what is asserted.
The ethical theory of deontology sets out the claims or bases on which leaders are called upon to act in keeping with what they expect of followers. Deontology has two footings. The first is that one must act in such a way that one’s action can become a universal norm. In this regard, the issue a leader must consider when determining whether to pursue a course of action, or evaluating the appropriateness of an action taken, is whether that action would still be okay if everyone did it.
The second footing of deontology is the dictum that leaders should always treat people as ends and not means to an end. This dictum suggests that leaders serve those they lead and not the other way around and are thus obliged to ensure that their actions advance the good of those they lead. It is for this reason that leaders are expected to step aside when it is found that in the conduct of their official duties, they failed in substantive ways by placing their interests ahead of the people they serve.
Corruption probe of Jamaica’s Prime Minister
The Corruption Investigation Unit of Jamaica’s chief anti-corruption state agency, the Integrity Commission, had referred the Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, for corruption prosecution. This information was revealed in a report that was tabled in Parliament. (The tabling of such reports is a legal requirement). The referral of the Prime Minister for corruption prosecution, followed an investigation undertaken by the Corruption Investigation Unit, and is a historic development in Jamaica, and it is the first time that a Prime Minister was being so referred. The corruption investigation was in relation to government contracts for works done in the constituency the Prime Minister represents and dates back about a decade and a half ago when the Prime Minister was Minister of Education. The Prime Minister, in a statement issued by his Minister of Information, sought to downplay the gravity of the referral, stating, among other things, that the issues occurred years ago, and other Members of Parliament have done some of the same things of which he was accused. This latter assertion is an admission that he did some of the things alleged. Arguing that others have done it neither justifies nor minimizes the wrongness of the action.
This latest and significant development is occurring when several other questions, and issues and concerns remain unanswered, unresolved, and unsatisfactory concerning how Mr. Holness has conducted himself in his public life both as Minister of Education and Prime Minister. These include that:
- The Prime Minister’s 2021 statement of assets and liabilities (Integrity Declarations) filed, in keeping with the requirements of the law, with the Integrity Commission, remain uncertified several months since being filed. Non-certification by the Integrity Commission means that the Commission has questions or queries that the Prime Minister has not yet addressed or satisfactorily addressed.
- The Prime Minister has not responded to an invitation of the Integrity Commission to sign the Leaders’ Integrity Code of Conduct. This code of conduct was prepared by the Integrity Commission and is intended to guide the conduct of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in their political and public duties. The Leader of the Opposition and some members of his party have signed the Code. The Prime Minister has not.
- On a previous occasion, the Prime Minister submitted his integrity declarations late, in violation of statute.
- Property taxes for at least some of the properties owned by the Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition, remain unpaid for several months and were not paid until after an investigative reporter had made the revelations of these unpaid obligations.
- Several cabinet ministers of the Holness administration who have been found culpable in corruption probes by the Integrity Commission remain in the cabinet or the executive, and one, who resigned, is facing criminal prosecution for massive fraud, though questions may be legitimately asked about whether the Prime Minister was, prior to the resignation of that Minister, unaware of his actions. If the Prime Minister were unaware, then that fact raises concerns about the level of supervision of his Ministers.
Troubling questions remain unanswered
The day following the tabling of the report of the corruption investigation, a report from the Corruption Prosecution Unit (which is independent of the Corruption Investigation Unit) was tabled and indicated that no criminal prosecution would be undertaken against the Prime Minister.
Opinions are split across Jamaica concerning whether the report of the Corruption Investigation Unit should have been tabled considering the finding of the Corruption Prosecution Unit, that no criminal action be pursued against the Prime Minister. The Integrity Commission, in a statement, responding to the public discussion has sought to clarify that under the law, it was obliged to table both reports and it could not have tabled a report on the conclusion of the matter (the decision not to prosecute) before tabling the report of the investigation (with the recommendation to prosecute based on the findings).
The question may well be raised whether both reports ought to have been published at the same time and in my view they should have been.
The fact that the Corruption Prosecution Unit has determined that the evidence was not strong enough to warrant the laying the criminal charges ought not to be seen as good news for a Prime Minister, who is expected to be a model when it comes to the highest standards of ethics and probity. The fact that the Director of Corruption Prosecution has decided not to proceed with criminal charges, is not an elevated or elevating outcome for the Prime Minister. It is a mere escape, and what the Director of Criminal Prosecution has ruled reflects an opinion which differs from that of an equally competent “judge” of the facts who found that prosecution was warranted. The painful and ugly picture with which Jamaica is left, and which stands before the world is that its Prime Minister was referred for criminal prosecution, by the country’s leading anti-corruption body but escaped prosecution. This is not a pretty picture.
On several previous occasions, I advanced evidence which I have argued makes the case that Mr. Holness is unfit to continue as Prime Minister. This latest development, notwithstanding the decision not to prosecute, strengthens my view that he is unfit. The examples from the United Kingdom, cited at the beginning of this article stand as a guide.
It bears repeating; true leaders aim for the highest standards, not the lowest. When a Prime Minister escapes prosecution in a corruption probe, the escape is cause for rejoicing only when standards of leadership are set against the lowest levels.
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.