Mon | Dec 11, 2017

Editorial | Hanna's case is the symptom, not the disease

Published:Monday | November 27, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Prime Minister Andrew Holness's announcement of another J$600-million-plus infrastructure project is, in its intent and timing, fortuitous.

First, the road patching that is intended to be done is quite necessary. For, as Mr Holness observed, Jamaica's road network, which has long not been in the best of shape, has become increasingly potholed and cratered, and in some instances, downright dangerous, in the face of the recent run of bad weather.

"I, too, drive on the roads, and I have dropped into some of them (craters), and as the rains continue, the potholes are getting deeper and wider," the prime minister remarked.

But while repairing the roads is, of itself, important, there is a larger issue of governance and for a rebuilding of people's trust in government and political institutions - to which Mr Holness made a nod in the plan for the execution of this project - at play here.

According to the prime minister, each constituency is to be allocated J$10 million, to be spent on road patching, general clean-up, and hazard mitigation. The National Works Agency and National Solid Waste Management Authority are to execute the job. Critically, however, the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) is to provide oversight "during all phases of the programme".

 

ABUSING FIDUCIARY RESPONSIBILITY

 

Mr Holness framed the OCG's involvement as a response to people's "concerns about the quality of some of the works undertaken in recent times", which is hardly telling the full story. For, if the prime minister cares to admit it, this is a partial acknowledgement of recent admonitions by the contractor general of public officials, including the Cabinet, for their failing in or abusing their fiduciary responsibilities to taxpayers.

Indeed, only last week, Dirk Harrison, the contractor general, asked prosecutors to determine whether Lisa Hanna, the opposition MP for South East St Ann, misconducted herself as a public servant and was involved in a conflict of interest by recommending 12 persons connected to the People's National Party for contracts from the parish's municipal government.

Leading up to municipal elections a year ago, the Cabinet itself, rather than the government agency responsible for such matters, decided who were to get contracts, in which regions and in what amounts, from J$600 million that was to be spent on road repairs and drain cleaning. An investigation of the project by Mr Harrison found that government ministers, in some instances, helped to identify subcontractors and so-called 'project facilitators', who collected monies ostensibly for on-payment to workers.

In one instance, Mr Harrison determined that more than J$2.4 million, apparently paid through a facilitator, could not be accounted for against the documents for verification for work done. In another, he characterised four ministers as being "mendacious in their representations", and a witness, who said they had been involved in identifying people to be paid, as "insincere" in his testimony.

 

APPROPRIATE ROLES OF MPs

 

Although Mr Harrison, unlike in the Hanna case, apparently did not perceive any criminal conduct on the part of the ministers, serious moral questions clearly arise in both instances. So, too, does the question of what is the appropriate role of MPs and municipal councillors, versus the public bureaucrat, in the distribution of public goods. Politicians, too often, overstep their roles as legislators, policymakers and advocates to usurp the responsibilities of the permanent civil servant.

Months later, Prime Minister Holness hasn't made his promised statement on the OCG's

findings in the road repair and drain-cleaning investigation. His nod to it last week is insufficient. It is not too late for the PM to engage in a larger discourse towards ending the politics of patronage, which could, per force, include scrapping of the annual allocations to MPs under that vulgar pork barrel called the Constituency Development Fund. The Hanna case, in this context, is not the problem, just a symptom of it.