Breaking ECJ conventions
On Friday, November 6, the audit of the Ministry of Health was released and a statement from the chairman of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica was published under the headline 'No to Parliament amending campaign finance bill'.
These two apparently unrelated matters nevertheless underline a fundamental truth of the Jamaican system, that is, the more the public speaks out against wrongs and the more public officials stand up for what is right, is the less chance that any government can get away with breaking of good-governance conventions.
Such conventions particularly related to transparency and accountability are as essential to the working of the constitution as is any lubricant to the working of any machine. Without the lubricant of convention, the Constitution, like an engine, can jam up or break.
In relation to ministerial responsibility, Ministry Paper No. 19/2002, under the name of former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, sets out seven principles. Two of these are: "Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable ... to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office." Second principle: "Openness: Holders of public office should be as open as possible ... . They should ... restrict information only when the wider public interest so demands."
Last Friday's publication of the Ministry of Health audit, several months after their conclusion, repaired the breach of the convention of openness and accountability for one reason only: the public speaking out through talk shows, social media, discussion programmes, including the private sector, civil society, the parliamentary Opposition and no doubt influencing individuals within the Government.
The public must now decide, given the exposure of the disastrous situation in health facilities, whether the reassignment of Minister Ferguson from the Ministry of Health is an adequate expression of accountability. Individual ministerial responsibility in Jamaica in the 21st century led not to the reassignment, but the resignation of PNP ministers Dr Karl Blythe (2002) and Colin Campbell (2006); and JLP ministers Joseph Hibbert (2009) and Mike Henry (2011), to name but four examples.
The second convention is that "the party in power would not use its majority in the House to influence the direction of electoral matters". This convention, being upheld by the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, should be supported by all of us, while ensuring that it does not result in undue delay to the statutory regulation of campaign financing.
Prior to the establishment of the Electoral Advisory Committee (the precursor of the ECJ) in 1979, the party in power used its majority to manipulate electoral administration to its benefit, for example, in determining constituency boundaries. This manipulation led Jamaica to the brink of disaster and gave rise to the current convention that once the ECJ, with members of both parliamentary parties represented on that body, came to a consensus, the Parliament would debate, even dissent, but not reject its recommendations.
The bill's recommendations
The bill, among other things, bans political parties/candidates during a campaign period receiving criminal money, donations from foreign governments and entities, and requires some disclosure to the ECJ.
The bill also includes the recommendation that parties/candidates are eligible for state funding during campaigns. Such funding, however, shall only come where the Parliament has agreed to this line item "in the approved estimates of expenditure", where the party is in compliance with registration requirements, and where the political ombudsman certifies that "the candidate is in compliance with the Political Code of Conduct for elections".
So, where the Parliament has approved no funding in the Budget, there can be no state subsidy. Nevertheless, despite previous acceptance of this recommendation in the course of the widest consultation and years of discussion, the governing party proposes to delete this provision.
Taking into account urgency, this can and should be done promptly, but only by the bill being referred back to the ECJ, a consensus arrived at, and the matter brought back to the Parliament.