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Editorial: Integrity bill urgent for new Parliament

Published:Tuesday | February 16, 2016 | 2:00 AM

Among the unfinished business from the last Parliament that must have the urgent attention of the new one is the overhaul of laws governing the integrity of public officials, including legislators. The need for greater transparency and accountability is palpable.

Notwithstanding Jamaica's recent, and significant, improvement on Transparency International's global corruption index, there is little doubt that the island still labours under a major corruption perception problem. Indeed, nearly eight of 10 Jamaicans believe that their country's public officials are corrupt, given to graft and kickbacks, or of otherwise conducting their public duty for the benefit of special interests, friends or political colleagues.

This issue is assuming greater significance in the current election campaign with the intensification of the governing People's National Party (PNP) rhetoric against Opposition Leader Andrew Holness on whether he has accounted for his assets to the Integrity Commission that has responsibility for such matters, with regard to parliamentarians.

A large part of this focus has been on the large, and obviously costly, mansion that Mr Holness and his wife, Juliet, as aspiring MP, are building in the swanky Beverly Hills area of upper St Andrew. Even before the PNP openly placed the construction on the public agenda late last year, there had been whispers about the development, including within Mr Holness' Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), some of whose members were concerned that it would - as it has done now - provide good political fodder.

The matter has now gone beyond whether Mr Holness, on his parliamentarian salary, or with his wife, who is into real estate development, can afford the property, which are quite legitimate questions to the Holnesses and anyone holding public office. Apparently, the land on which the mansion is being built is owned by a company registered in St Lucia, about whose beneficial owners the PNP has asked questions of Mr Holness.

There are many legitimate reasons why people hold their assets through offshore entities, including tax efficiency and corporate confidentiality. But people who hold public office and are in command of public resources can't expect, or demand, the same level of privacy as other individuals.

In Jamaica, the demand for transparency from public officials is not on par with many other countries, especially developed economies. The assets and liabilities filings of parliamentarians are not, for instance, public documents. They are lodged with the Parliament Integrity Commission, which, in the event of infractions, complains to the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate, the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition. If one of these officials fails to abide by the rules - as the PNP suggests of Mr Holness - he or she becomes the judge in his own case.

Matters are made worse by the fact Parliament has been lame and effete in insisting on the policing of the integrity of its members. It is the prime minister's responsibility to table in Parliament the commission's annual reports of its basic work with recommendations of how it might be improved. But as we noted in November, that hasn't happened for five years. No one in Parliament has murmured.

Mr Holness should immediately set the record straight on his affairs. But the issue is beyond a single individual. Soon after the election, Parliament should revive the integrity bill, giving it real teeth and legislating transparency for public officials.