Editorial: Transparency beyond tobacco
Without realising it, Fenton Ferguson, the health minister, stumbled into the debate on corruption in Jamaica and ways to fight the problem.
His timing is fortuitous. A three-day international conference on the issue, organised by the Office of the Contractor General, concluded in Kingston yesterday. It followed last month's visit to Jamaica by the South African businessman, Graham Power, to promote his global campaign for the ethical conduct of business and life, Unashamedly Ethical. He reported more than 5,000 signatories to the cause. In a few weeks, the University of Technology Jamaica and the non-governmental organisation, National Integrity Action, will host what they call an anti-corruption summit.
Dr Ferguson may wonder how his comments about getting tougher on "big tobacco" figure in these discussions, or why this newspaper believes they ought to be. Well, at the heart of what the health minister addressed is the accountability by public officials, including Cabinet members and other legislators.
A year ago, Dr Ferguson introduced regulations to ban smoking in public places and in government facilities. Now, as he told a conference in Kingston last week, he wants to go further in tightening the regulatory environment for the industry, including enforcing Article 5 (3) of the convention, which says:
"In setting and implementing their public-health policies with respect to tobacco control, parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law."
What is particularly interesting is the health minister's seemingly expansive interpretation of this obligation to include, it appears, association/contact between public officials and the tobacco sector, which he intends to regulate by law. Declaring the tobacco industry's and public health's interests to be "irreconcilable", Dr Ferguson said that people in critical areas of government areas find association with the industry "sensitive", which we read to mean 'potential for conflicts of interest'.
Although the idea needs some clarification, this newspaper has no problem with the broad principle that Dr Ferguson enunciated. For, if we are right about what he intended to convey, then the prescription against a muddling of interests ought not to be restricted to interactions between tobacco companies, such as Jamaica's Carreras, and public officials.
We appreciate the public-health concerns regarding tobacco that informed that industry's regulatory arrangements, but we are also aware that a wide array of sectors, industries and firms seek to influence government policies, to the point of corrupting public officials. And as recent events in the UK Commons in a case involving two former senior ministers on either side of the aisle revealed, there is potential for blurring the line between corruption and legitimate behaviour.
Part of the antidote to these dilemmas is transparency. Previously, we suggested that Jamaica's Parliament, like some others elsewhere, should maintain a registry of MPs' non-parliamentary interests and engagements, as a deterrent to outright corruption, and of how their associations may have influenced their legislative actions. Unfortunately, this suggestion has had no traction. We hope it now will.
We also believe that it should be mandatory for key public officials to, within reason, keep diaries of all work-related engagements, and that these be subject to periodic scrutiny.