Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Immature democracy

Published:Friday | February 19, 2016 | 2:00 AM

The brouhaha over the Beverly Hills house that Andrew Holness and his wife are building is totally unnecessary. The accusations and counter-accusations between the finance minister and the opposition leader do not occur in mature democracies because in those countries, transparency laws require all politicians and senior public servants to annually declare their income and assets publicly.

If Mr Holness or any member of the public wants to know whether the private residence of Dr Phillips is a repossessed FINSAC asset, all we should need to do is check the FINSAC website. If anyone wants to know how many different 'house-an-lan' Dr Phillips or any MP owns - and when they obtained them - all they should need to do is interrogate the website of the Integrity Commission.

Cross-questioning about house ownership in public on a political platform, where the exchange will be broadcast internationally, is immature and childish, and it makes Jamaica look like a corrupt state, or at least a state with corrupt officials. It is demeaning for politicians to be forced to defend their reputations with public statements outlining their private affairs. Who will believe them?

When politicians say they have declared all their assets to the Integrity Commission, is this true? We don't know because those declarations are made in secret; and if it did not, the Integrity Commission cannot say so, for it would be breaching confidentiality. After the accusations and counter-accusations, and answers and declarations, we really are none the wiser.

The Jamaican Constitution recognises the right of all Jamaicans to privacy, but it is also well accepted across the globe that public figures who craft public policy and control public funds have an obligation to be transparent in their public and private dealings; public figures cannot be allowed to use their right to privacy to conceal illegal enrichment.

But that is exactly what happens in Jamaica, and 'no side better than none' in this regard.

 

COMPLETE TRANSPARENCY

 

Lawmakers have enacted laws that require their declarations of assets to be made in secret and have prescribed no penalty should they make false declarations, or no declarations at all! And there is no mechanism or staff in place to investigate and ground-truth the declarations.

It is very difficult to keep secrets in Jamaica. If the assets of public servants were made known to the public they serve, pretty soon it would become known who owns a house or two that they did not admit to, or who is a shareholder in a company that receives government contracts that was not declared. Many conflicts of interest would be exposed.

That is why our corrupt politicians won't make their declaration of assets public unless they are forced to by public pressure. Our politicians will not willingly engender a mature democracy. It is civil society that must demand it and make it happen.

Another sign of an immature democracy is opaque campaign financing and political donations. Who gave the JLP the tens of thousands of US dollars to retain Manatt, Phelps and Phillips in the Dudus affair? Why did Trafigura Beheer give more than $30 million to the PNP just before an election?

Who was the impetus behind the passage of legislation last year to decriminalise ganja? Criminal records were quickly expunged, but no ticket books have yet been distributed. It sounds like someone with a criminal record for ganja made a convenient donation.

Who was the impetus behind the indecent haste to change the copyright law last year before proper consultations with government agencies had occurred? Cui bono?

The last time we had political debates in Jamaica, the president of the PNP announced out of the blue that if her party was elected, she would review the buggery law. Was that assertion the result of a campaign donation? Who provided the seven-figure donation last month to clothe, feed, and transport the PNP crowd into Kingston to protest the de-selection of Raymond Pryce as PNP candidate for NE St Elizabeth?

Who is providing the billions of dollars to fund the marauding green and orange hordes parading around the country hanging off buses and cars doing what is called 'campaigning'?

In this regard, the private sector is compromised. They wish their donations to remain confidential to prevent the press and anti-corruption elements from putting two and two together. The day Jamaica's private sector says "no more donations until there is complete transparency", it will happen, and Jamaica will be better off.

Jamaica will mature as a democratic state only when the anti-democratic elements within the political parties and the private sector are forced to grow up.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.