Tue | Dec 12, 2017

Editorial | Phillips’ failing grade on PAC

Published:Thursday | September 28, 2017 | 12:00 AM

We appreciate that this has been a hectic and intense 18 months for Peter Phillips, since his party lost the government and he, the job as finance minister. Dr Phillips has since become president of the People's National Party (PNP) and leader of the Opposition. He has been preoccupied with restructuring the party and ensuring that it came through the first annual conference under his leadership without significant fissures.

But as busy as Dr Phillips may be, given the wider expanse of his remit, it can't be at the expense of his responsibilities as a member of parliament, or an important part thereof. In this case, we refer to his obligations as chairman of Parliament's Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which he has singularly failed to fulfil.

The PAC is among the House's most important and influential standing committees. It, among other things, reviews the actions and activities of the finance ministry, but its most consistent, and the one for which it is best known, is its scrutiny of audits of government ministries, departments and agencies conducted by the auditor general.

Although this public airing takes place after the fact, the public reviews help to bring transparency to the conduct of public officials and, thereby, acts as a restraint on corruption. Bureaucrats, for fear it might come to light, are likely to be more circumspect about how they use taxpayers' resources.

 

BUSINESS ON HOLD

 

But the PAC has not met for 11 months, since the start of November 2016. In the meantime, as this newspaper reported on Tuesday, 13 audit and reports submitted by Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis, and tabled in the House, await the scrutiny of the PAC. Dr Phillips has failed to convene a meeting. In other words, the people's business remains on hold.

We know that Dr Phillips can offer seemingly logical explanations for this state of affairs, including some he might not readily admit in public, which might be the basis for a debate on who should lead the committee and when. Under the rules, it is the shadow finance minister who chairs the committee, which didn't matter for the 18 years, up to 2007, when the PNP lost the government. It was a member of the same party who critiqued the actions of a finance minister whose party had consistently formed the government.

In the case of Dr Phillips, after the PNP lost the government in February 2016, he was appointed the shadow finance minister and chairman of the PAC, having to review, at least in the early period, actions undertaken by government agencies during his watch as finance minister. The same thing happened to Omar Davies when the PNP left office in 2007, and Audley Shaw, following the Jamaica Labour Party's defeat in 2011

Not only would this not have been emotionally challenging for these men, but it had the potential to limit robustness with which they attended the job. At least there is the danger of that perception. It is an issue to be considered in the event of a finance minister transitioning to the shadow portfolio in the immediate aftermath of an election.

Dr Phillips, of course, had other and perhaps more profound distractions. He had a party to take over and leadership to assert, which, broadly, has been accomplished. He is to soon name his shadow Cabinet, including a spokesman on finance, which, presumably, will not be himself.

This matter, Dr Phillips must know, is urgent. For while settling his party's affairs may be crucial, managing the country's business is vital. In this case, Dr Phillips got neither the balance nor his priorities right.