Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Peter Espeut | One small step

Published:Friday | June 24, 2016 | 6:00 AM

There has been a lot of focus on the JLP campaign promise of what has come to be called '1.5', the promise that no one earning $1.5 million per annum will pay any income tax. That was pure populism.

But for me, the more far-reaching and game-changing JLP campaign promise is that certain high-ranking officials must publicly disclose their assets and liabilities. The exact wording in the JLP 2016 election manifesto is: "We will introduce mandatory disclosure of integrity reports by the prime minister, leader of the Opposition, and minister of finance" (page 15, under the major heading 'Governance' and the minor heading, 'Greater Transparency').

The prelude to the section on Governance in the JLP 2016 manifesto runs as follows: "Corruption impedes economic growth, undermines the rule of law, and tears down the fabric of society." True words!

Professor Anthony Clayton, lead consultant to the Cabinet Office, Jamaica, found in his 2013 study National Security Policy for Jamaica that corruption, along with crime and violence, has retarded Jamaica's economic development. He writes: "The economy is now, at best, one-third of the size it should have been; it may be only one-tenth of the size it could have been." (executive summary, Page 4)

Instead of growing at an average of a measly one per cent per annum over the last 40 years, our GDP, which in 2013 was US$5,290 per capita, could have been much greater - between US$15,870 per person and US$52,900 per person - if Jamaica had less corruption, crime and violence. Yes, corrupt politicians and businessmen benefit from corruption, but every Jamaican pays for public corruption in our lower standard of living and lower quality of life. Reducing corruption by itself is clearly an effective means to achieving economic growth and personal prosperity for may Jamaicans.

 

ASSETS AND LIABILITIES

 

Allegations of political corruption have flown about freely ever since I can remember. They run something like this: "When im entah politrix, im never ave nutten, and look at im now: big cyar, big ouse, and nuff lan." It very well may be that persons became wealthy by investing their government salary wisely, and that everything is above board. But it could also be that the accumulation of wealth by public figures is greater than their official income should allow.

Transparency is indeed the best antiseptic for political corruption. When politicians make a public declaration of their assets and liabilities before entering politics and during their political tenure, forensic accountants can verify that they have not been receiving payments under the table.

The fact that politicians have resisted making such public declarations for so long only adds to the suspicion. The fact that, at the moment, parliamentarians make integrity declarations of assets and liabilities in secret to a commission of Parliament set up by them, with little forensic capability, makes it unlikely that any corruption will ever be detected under this system.

Over the last 20 years or so in this column, I have called for all integrity filings to be made public, as well as all political donations, in the interest of transparency. I see the JLP election promise of public declarations as a game-changer, and I choose to be optimistic that the recent semi-public declarations by the PNP's Julian Robinson and Prime Minister Andrew Holness are only the early fruits of greater things to come.

It will soon become clear that public integrity declarations by the prime minister, leader of the Opposition, and minister of finance will not suffice, and declarations of all public officials will enter the public domain. Whereas I agree that fine details such as bank account numbers need not be made public (for fear of attempts at bank fraud), the locations of houses and property must be declared. Just declaring 'two houses' will prevent members of the public from blowing the whistle on undeclared houses they know about.

I look forward to the new Government making progress on keeping this important campaign promise in its second hundred days, and, indeed, in giving us more than they promised. I hope that they will also revisit the campaign-finance legislation that requires only political donations made during the 'campaign period' to be declared. To be meaningful, all donations should be made public.

Legislation should be passed in the interest of transparency, which will make scandals such as the donations associated with Trafigura and the Manatt affair a thing of the past. Reducing corruption should, indeed, lead to an increase in per-capita economic growth and human development.

- The Rev Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.