Catching Mr Hutchinson changes nothing
As is rarely the case when it comes to plundering public resources to finance the politics of patronage, the Gordon House consortium turned back what would have been a most egregious raid on the infamous Constituency Development Fund (CDF).
But no one should take this fleeting glimmer of common sense as a signal that the CDF may be redeemable; that it is merely in need of decent oversight. In this respect, we make two observations. One is that what happened in that parliamentary committee was merely what it seemed - a fleeting action. The root to political longevity in this process of governance by clientelism, is to make constituents directly dependent on the handouts of their representatives, so-called.
Second, having regard to the foregoing, the CDF has a problem not only of oversight and management, which, if it were the case, would have been fixable. It is a conceptually wrong programme that weakens ideals of governance and undermines the role of the bureaucracy in a liberal democratic state.
It is necessary, in this context, to remind that the CDF is a fund that the Government sets aside - around J$1 billion in the current fiscal year - which parliamentarians can tap to finance projects in their constituencies. Each member of parliament (MP) has access to around $15.9 million. It used to be more, but has declined because of economic stringencies.
It is worth noting, too, that in Jamaica's often contentiously divisive politics, the CDF is among few schemes that has maintained bipartisan support - and not only at the level of the leadership of the political parties.
MPs embrace it across the aisle because it represents an opportunity to distribute pork and to portray the largesse as an outcome of their own benevolence. And that is what J.C. Hutchinson, the Jamaica Labour Party's shadow minister, so crassly attempted to do. He promised to finance sport competitions in his North Western St Elizabeth constituency from the CDF, including for prize money, the payment of referees, scorers, ballboys, coaches and the coverage of medical expenses for club members.
Even by the vulgar standards of the CDF, that was too much for members of the parliamentary oversight committee of the CDF and for Moveta Munroe, the head of the oversight unit in the Office of the Prime Minister.
"There is a whole lot of stuff here that cannot be covered by our operational procedures," Ms Munroe told the committee. They agreed.
So this time, taxpayers were lucky to avoid a legal, institutional shakedown.
Supporters of the CDF argue that it provides elected representatives with resources to respond directly, and quickly, to the needs of constituents. What it in fact does is to shift authority for the management of resources from the permanent bureaucracy to an elected partisan, whose aim is not necessarily the promotion of broad community interests, but narrow paternalistic agendas that reinforce, his own status.
An unintended upshot of this approach is a weakening of the State and its institutions, to be supplanted by the MP, who thus becomes only one step removed from the community don/distributor, rather than legislator and advocate for the interests of his constituents.