“The Unelected.” That sounds like a movie or TV drama title, doesn’t it? “The Unforgiven.” “The Missing.” And so on.
Yesterday lunchtime, I was gathering my belongings and about to leave Gordon House as a parliamentary committee meeting drew to a close. Anti-corruption campaigner, former politician and University of the West Indies professor Trevor Munroe had just made a submission to the parliamentary Joint Select Committee examining draft legislation to establish a single anti-corruption agency with prosecutorial powers. I was honored to join a bright young group of volunteers and staff members from National Integrity Action (NIA), a non-profit lobby group focusing on corruption, transparency and accountability issues in government founded by Professor Munroe three years ago. NIA has been advocating for a single anti-corruption agency for some time now. The Committee held its first meeting in October, and has some way to go in its deliberations, I would say.
But I was stopped in my tracks. I stopped shoveling things into my bag, and listened. Government Senator and Committee member Lambert Brown felt compelled to speak just as the Chair, Minister of Justice Mark Golding was wrapping up. Senator Brown, who had been making some noise earlier about what he saw as the illegitimate power of “non-elected people” (he used the word “divine” at one point) decided to underline his complaint, as a kind of parting shot.
Now, Senator Brown is a trade unionist, with strong socialist credentials, who recently spoke out against the removal of provisions in the Sexual Offences Act legalizing marital rape (aren’t Jamaican citizens his brothers and sisters any more?) But he saw fit to launch into a diatribe against the “loose, irresponsible behavior of civil society.” Jamaican civil society groups, he alleged, are “not accountable” and “not elected” and so its members should not be allowed to sit on public bodies such as the Integrity Commission (which also made a submission at the Committee meeting).
Question: Who elected you, Senator Brown? Answer: He was appointed by the Prime Minister (yes, he is also unelected) thanks to his political loyalty. Fact!
Senator Brown is miffed at the decision by two civil society umbrella groups – the 51% Coalition and the environmental sector – to suspend participation in the Partnership for Jamaica, headed by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller. In earlier posts I shared the letters presented by these groups, representing a fair-sized chunk of Jamaican civil society. The withdrawal was prompted by concern over the use of National Housing Trust (NHT) contributors’ money to purchase the Outameni tourist attraction – which seems to have been, on reflection, the straw that broke the camel’s back for many Jamaicans seeking greater transparency and accountability in governance. Those are the concerned citizens that represent “irresponsible” civil society (the Senator repeated this word a few times).
So, you could call Senator Brown’s comments a mere political backlash, in defense of his involvement with the NHT and his continued presence on its board. He was one of those who refused to step down, after several others had resigned in embarrassment. Would he like to see the boards of all government entities stuffed with political hacks and sympathizers? It appears so, although he did not explicitly state it.
The erudite Professor Munroe responded swiftly and cogently to the Senator’s dismissal of civil society. The United Nations Convention on Corruption, he noted – which Jamaica has signed onto – specifically mandates governments to encourage the active participation of civil society groups and non-governmental organizations in fighting corruption (see Article 13). If you look at the UN websites you will see anti-corruption training materials for civil society, and so on. Article Three of the Inter-American Convention on Corruption, to which Jamaica is also a signatory, also notes the importance of “mechanisms to encourage participation by civil society and nongovernmental organizations in efforts to prevent corruption.”
There was another aspect of Senator Brown’s comments, not fully reported in the media, which disturbed me. The Senator seemed uncomfortable with the idea of “perception” of corruption by public officials (referring to the Transparency International report) and asked whether there are any reports in Jamaica or elsewhere globally that detail actual corruption. Professor Munroe responded that by its very secretive nature, it is very hard to pin down, but pointed to several sources for anti-corruption information. It is a World Bank indicator. The Global Competitiveness Report and the World Economic Forum pay attention to corruption in their annual reports, for example, as well as the U.S. State Department International Narcotics Strategy Report (INCSR). Closer to home, Professor Munroe noted the DaCosta Commission of Enquiry of 1972 into the administration of a large World Bank loan for education in 1966, which was riddled with corruption; and the controversy over the handling of Operation Pride, which led to the resignation of former Housing Minister Karl Blythe in 2002.
Senator Lambert elaborated further. The Integrity Commission, he noted, had not prosecuted one parliamentarian during the course of forty-one years. This shows that corruption among politicians is mere “perception,” was his clear suggestion. He made some further comments about politicians walking around with this cloud of perception unfairly hanging over their heads, “baseless allegations” made against them, and so on.
Senator Brown seems to have missed a couple of things. During his submission to the Committee, the Chair of the Integrity Commission – the retired Justice Paul Harrison, who was appointed in December, 2011 – continually emphasized the Commission’s dire lack of resources. Every year, he reported, the Commission requests a financial analyst and an investigator. Its requests have always fallen on deaf ears. The Commission’s current role is not investigative at all; it has been forced to focus on ensuring that government officials comply with the request to file annual declarations of income and assets. Even then, some do not comply or fail to fully comply with the law in this respect. Minister Golding also noted Government’s tendency to “operate in silos.” Indeed, despite much talk about “joined-up government,” information-sharing among government agencies is poor. This is a major weakness that the amalgamation of three anti-corruption agencies through this legislation seeks to address. The lack of prosecutions must be seen in this light. As we well know, the current anti-corruption framework is weak and full of holes.
A footnote, here. Responding to Senator Brown’s final outburst, Chair Mark Golding observed, perhaps tellingly: “The issue is the transparency of civil society groups.” We would like to know where civil society groups get their funding from, he commented. Just listing “grants” and “donations” in their ledgers is not enough, he added; we, the Government, would like to know the “source of funding” for these groups.
Yes, Professor Munroe noted, civil society groups must be properly established and registered and Parliament can always move to have them removed from the democratic process if they are, indeed, irresponsible. To which he added, wryly, that we (civil society) would like to know where political parties get their funding from! In my view, frankly, the Government has no right to throw stones from this (less than transparent) glass house at this point in time.
Touché, Professor Munroe. Touché! And that’s for another discussion.
Members of the parliamentary Committee who were present yesterday:
Senator Mark Golding (Chair); Arnoldo Brown; Senator Lambert Brown; Delroy Chuck; Senator Imani Duncan Price; Senator Sophia Frazer-Binns; Fitz Jackson; Senator Kamina Johnson Smith; Senator K.D. Knight; Senator Marlene Malahoo Forte; Julian Robinson; Derrick Smith; Senator Alexander Williams.
Minister of National Security Peter Bunting participated in the meeting for a short while, and some of the above members arrived late but it seemed to be a healthy turnout.