In the first of a dozen columns for 2021 in The Gleaner, I wrote on January 3 that there were two lessons to be learnt from 2020: “The more we stand up to the abuse of power, whether by white colour or blue colour law breakers ultimately by making use of the courts, the more chance that we should get accountability.” Lesson No. 2: “ The more we expose and not cover up wrongs … primarily through the media, the more likely we are to deal with unacceptable inequities in our system … the first three months of 2021 must see overdue agreements being implemented … the MOCA become fully independent … secondly, the regulations must be approved by Parliament to reduce cronyism and nepotism and increase the merit bases for the appointment to the boards of public bodies … these and other deliverables will be better accomplished to the extent that our investigative journalists, our captains of industry, our church leaders and honest parliamentarians, as well as the man in the street remain vigilant and insist on accountability.”
I was overly optimistic. It took 12 months instead of three, but now, MOCA is fully independent – the equivalent of a Jamaican FBI or the National Crime Agency, the agency in the United Kingdom. Similarly, the regulations to reduce nepotism and cronyism and to enhance merit and competence as the main criteria for appointment to public boards have now been passed.
This latter would never have happened in 2021 without:
• The resignation of a number of public boards arising from public outcry following the disclosure by the auditor general and investigative journalists of irregular and unacceptable conduct by board members
• The persistence of political leaders on both sides of the aisle in overcoming the resistance of colleagues who were opposed to this positive change.
• Civil society organisations, including NIA and the CMOC, as well as the private sector insisting that the new regulations must be passed.
The year 2021 also saw the emergence of new voices demanding accountability. Prominent among these was the Community Advocacy Group, a forum for strategic discussions and empowerment to deal with common systemic concerns involving breaches of real estate development regulations in various communities. From humble beginnings, the group now embraces 24 citizens’ associations from across the Corporate Area. They are saying “no to concrete jungle development”, have engaged in much public advocacy, and have taken breaches of covenants to the courts, which have ruled in their favour.
Last year also saw determined resistance by the media and civil society to a determined effort to breach Parliament Standing Orders which required ministers to answer questions posed on public-interest matters. This dangerous attempt to restrict ministerial accountability was ultimately defeated. All of this represented one step forward in upholding good governance.
Nevertheless, Jamaica remained at a standstill and even took a backward step in relation to accountability and transparency. In respect of transparency, the Integrity Commission ceased public disclosure of quarterly contract awards, of which companies were getting how much to do what work. Similarly, boards of the majority bodies continued gross violations with impunity of the Public Bodies Management Accountability Act. This law requires public bodies to report within three months of parliamentary year ending to the minister and through to the minister, the Parliament, and the public on how they have spent the taxpayers’ money and the other activities in which they have been engaged. Despite appeals from the financial secretary as of December 2021, only one in four of 161 public entities have told us what they have done with billions of dollars of our money.
At the same time, the Government has fallen short in meeting critical targets. Very important among these agreed to in the Crime Consensus Management Oversight Committee were the establishment of unexplained Wealth Orders, the passage of the Enhanced Security Measures Act and steps to reduce the levels of violence in the country. These derelictions amount to one step backwards, in effect balancing the positives of 2021. One result of this is declining trust and confidence in Government confirmed by a number of national surveys, notably by Blue Dot and Don Anderson Market Research. An off-shoot off low trust is high disregard for the Government’s appeal to Jamaicans to get vaccinated.
The achievements and deficits of 2021 set the agenda for 2022.
• CMOC priorities, agreed to by the Government, but still not in the Government’s legislation programme (to be found on the Cabinet secretary’s website) must be incorporated as a matter of urgency.
• Uncompromising application of the recently passed legislations governing the selection of members of public boards
• The resumption of publication by the Integrity Commission of quarterly contract awards. This requires the deletion of Section 56 of the Integrity Commission Act. At the same time, the Joint Select Committee of Parliament considering this matter should recommend the removal of the Gag Clause 53.
• The enforcement of the Public Management Accountability Act by bringing before the courts the officers responsible for three-quarters of public entities perennially breaching the PBMAA requirements for transparency and accountability. Relatedly, resignation by board members responsible for breaches of law should be accompanied by appropriate penalties for breaching the Procurement Act or any other relevant law.
• In the course of these steps towards rebuilding trust, Government must play a more active lead role in building a national consensus around a “vax or test” national policy.
These and other urgent improvements in governance shall require in 2022 a more active stand by politicians of integrity on both sides of the aisle, greater support for more effective advocacy by civil society, and more purposeful collaboration among persons of integrity in the media and in the public, private, and civil society sectors.
At the start of 2021, at the request of the prime minister, the Cabinet participated in 10 modules totalling over 20 hours put on by the Integrity Commission on “Anti-Corruption, Good Governance and Integrity Sensitisation Training”. I recommend that Cabinet members revisit the modules, in particular, recall: “Definition of corruption … politicians misusing public funds or granting public jobs or contracts to their sponsors, financiers, friends, or families”; “Nearly J$100 billion is lost to corruption annually; “When leaders decide it’s a priority to stop corruption, corruption can be stopped” (Barrack Obama – July 25, 2015).