Editorial | Integrity bill needs another look
We have no cause to question the Government's decision last year to purchase two offshore patrol vessels for the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) Coastguard from the Dutch shipbuilders, Damen Group.
The larger ships enhanced the JDF's capacity to scout Jamaica's expansive exclusive economic zone, as well as its maritime borders, against poachers and other criminals. It helped that Damen had two Stan Patrol 4207 class vessels in stock, so, after their kitting out, it could, within months, deliver the ships to the JDF. Further, Jamaica got a good deal. At least, that was implied. The JDF traded-in three older, Damen-built ships, which apparently was supplemented by the payment of some cash. The specifics of the arrangement, however, have not be made public.
On the off-chance that the procurement rules were broken, or someone had reason to suspect impropriety, Dirk Harrison, the contractor general, couldn't have launched and sustained an investigation into the acquisitions. For, under the existing Contractor General Act, that office is precluded from pursuing investigations in defence and security-related contracts with the prior approval of the Cabinet, acting through the Cabinet secretary.
A similar prohibition exists in the omnibus bill, now before Parliament, to create a single anti-corruption agency. We disagree not only with this provision, but the even more egregious intention to apply these powers "to any contract which the Cabinet determines ... ought to be kept confidential".
We appreciate the concerns about national security that, historically, provided the opaqueness with which the military and other security-type procurements were shrouded. But the murkiness of these arrangements had a negative consequence: it bred corruption, for which military and security procurement is globally notorious.
Indeed, this is a matter that is increasingly getting attention from anti-corruption agencies and the world's governments. For instance, in a report on the matter last year, Transparency International urged governments to "review procurement processes and implement systems that increase transparency" in the defence/security procurement regimes.
The default positions of governments tend to be in favour of secrecy, but we believe to be quite feasible to be transparent about procurement deals without undermining national security. In the event of overriding national security concerns, it ought not to be merely asserted by the Cabinet, but ought to be subject to objective tests, captured in the language of the law. In the event, the refashioned integrity investigator and the Integrity Commission disagree with a ruling of the Cabinet, that should be challengeable before a judge in chambers or a panel of judges sitting in camera.
On the other hand, Clause 50 (2) (c) giving the Cabinet the power to designate any old contract secret - regardless of its absence of relationship to national security - ought to be excised fully and forthwith. It is a provision that provides with an unfettered right to be corrupt. They need only apply a 'No Investigation' seal to a contract.
We are especially sensitive to this matter in the face of last year's J$600-million election-eve award of verge cleaning and road repair contracts into which the Cabinet vulgarly inserted itself, determining which firms were to be engaged in what region.
Whether taxpayers got value for their money remains unclear. The arrangement, in which ministers may have helped to determine who supped at the trough, had far more than a whiff of partisan, vote-buying vulgarity. We know it happened because the contractor general could investigate.