Gordon Robinson | The Wheatley wobble
No doubt the reduction in Minister Andrew Wheatley's portfolio will be trumpeted by the People's National Party (PNP) as a huge victory.
It might be seen as a PNP win. It shouldn't be. Whether or not it's a PNP triumph, the plain truth is that Jamaica has gained nothing. Cabinet's statement of the decisions taken after a lengthy Monday night meeting found its way into Tuesday's Gleaner:
"1. The residential status of all persons nominated to boards must be stated in the Cabinet submission seeking approval for appointment.
2. Overseas travel of board chairmen or board members must receive prior approval of the minister.
3. Public bodies will be prohibited from entering into sole-source retainer contracts without the prior approval of Cabinet.
4. The Ministry of Finance has been tasked with developing and finalising uniform regulations for public bodies around donations and corporate social responsibility ... . This would see limits on the amount that can be approved at agency level. It will be a requirement that all donations be disclosed, with details to include the amount, the receiving entity, the purpose of the donation and connected party consideration ... .
5. ... Petrojam requires a strategic review of its management and operations, as well as its long-term commercial viability and role in Jamaica's energy security. Having regard to this and the ongoing investigation, Minister Wheatley agreed ... that in the interest of transparency, the energy portfolio will be transferred to the [OPM], effective July 4, 2018.
6. A special enterprise team will be assembled to conduct and oversee the organisational and strategic review of Petrojam."
This is pure, unadulterated illusion. What's changed that has the remotest chance of preventing a recurrence of statutory bodies' non-transparent abuse of public funds? What's to restrain these public bodies from acting as political slush funds for the politically connected? NOTHING! Zero! Zip! Nada!
So board members must disclose their residence. Well, goody, goody gumdrops! First, corruption knows no geography. Second, this information must be "stated in the Cabinet submission seeking approval for appointment", so it remains a political secret unless the information minister elects to reveal it, say, in a post-Cabinet briefing. Oops! Sorry! There hasn't been one of those for a long time. Oh, snap! Why can't these Cabinet 'appointments' be converted into Cabinet nominations to be thoroughly vetted in public by parliamentary joint select committees? Why're we still keeping these appointments deep, dark secrets until a bare list of names is published on Page 55?
Who is to approve overseas travel? Why, the "minister", of course? DWL! What's new? Hands up those who believe ministers currently know nothing of board members' foreign travel? Nobody? OK, then, hands up those who believe boards' "foreign travel" isn't currently approved by the finance ministry in annual Budgets hidden in obscure line items on principles well known to Cabinet? Somebody, please put a hand up! Nobody? Aw, shucks!
Surely, every Jamaican over 10 knows that every public agency board contains at least one 'agent' of the minister whose job is to carry news to minister and carry minister's wish lists to the board? I'm not guessing. I know. I've been there - ignored that.
But how many board chairmen have the testicular fortitude to ignore ministerial 'requests'? How many lay down conditions of integrity to ministers in advance, as one famously successful 1980s statutory board chairman told the portfolio minister before accepting appointment, "Don't pay me. And don't help me do the work"? Public body chairmanship (once it's not an executive chairmanship) isn't a salaried occupation. Apart from a stipend for attending meetings, it should be understood as public service, not an opportunity to plunge one's snout into the public trough.
"In restless dreams I walked alone;
narrow streets of cobblestone.
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
when my eyes were stabbed by
the flash of a neon light
that split the night
and touched the sound of silence."
The problem isn't what Cabinet knows. The problem is what we're NOT TOLD! And the lengths to which the Government will go to ensure we never find out! So, there will be no "sole-source retainer contracts without the prior approval of Cabinet"? Well, whoop-did-doom! Of what possible protection is that for us? What's in place to ensure that if Cabinet decides to sole-source to a political hack, we'll know in advance and be allowed to critique rather than having to depend on ex post facto long, drawn-out closing of barn doors by ponderous bureaucratic bungler (oops, sorry, 'investigators') after horses have bolted? And then only when 'groomie' bawls out!
LEARNING TO LISTEN
Silence driven by tribalism will sound Jamaica's death knell. We MUST learn to listen carefully and hear what isn't being said. We MUST cast light on the political darkness that threatens to overwhelm us.
"And in the naked light I saw
10 thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking;
People hearing without listening;
People writing songs that voices
no one dared disturb
the sound of silence."
So, the public braying for Andrew Wheatley's dismissal has been artfully deflected. He's still in the Cabinet. Again, what has changed? One portfolio subject transferred; minister still in same office; same ministerial salary for less work; same ministry staff who must now testify! How's that "having regard to this and the ongoing investigation" or "in the interest of transparency"? How does THAT assist investigations?
This MUST be the Guy Lombardo Show! Transparency in governance has moved from behind smudged windows to behind deeply tinted glass.
"Fools, said I, You do not know.
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you.
Take my arms that I might reach you!"
But my words, like silent raindrops,
Fell and echoed in the wells of silence."
The final solution: "A special enterprise team will be assembled to conduct and oversee the organisational and strategic review of Petrojam." Really? Seriously? Will the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association, PAJ, or any civil-society advocates join that team? Or will it be another gang of politically sympathetic groupies anxious to please?
How will this enterprise team correct these governance failings? What will it be asked to do apart from prepping Petrojam for divestment? Will it devise strategies to ensure potential political slush funds are transparently managed? Will we continue to treat our political leaders as gods and remain silently genuflecting, palms up, hoping for our likkle pop-off? Who'll speak for future generations? Who'll pierce the pall of silence that protects Jamaica's political leadership from accountability?
"And the people bowed and prayed
to the neon God they made.
And the sign flashed out its warning
in the words that it was forming.
And the sign said:
The words of the prophets are
Written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sound of silence."
Meanwhile, a pumped-up PNP, all agog about prevailing politically, spent hours in Parliament last Tuesday putting Minister Wheatley through the wringer regarding almost every dollar spent by Petrojam since February 2016. One PNP member of parliament got so excited, he asked about 20 questions at once, so much so that neither he nor Wheatley could remember the questions or identify which were answered and which not. The Opposition didn't ask one question regarding systems to be created to prevent recurrence. What price, if government changes and Petrojam remains under public management, these improper spending practices continue?
Paul Simon originally wrote The Sound of Silence as an acoustic ballad for Simon & Garfunkel's debut album, but it was a commercial disaster. The song is about people's inability to communicate emotionally but was misunderstood at the time (1964) to be a political commentary on John F. Kennedy's assassination.
Like many of Simon's early works, the meaning depended on what the listener heard. In 1965, while Simon was in England, Tom Wilson (producer of Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone) asked members of Dylan's studio band to add electric guitar and drums to the acoustic version. Columbia released an amplified Silence, which became a monster hit, peaking at #1 in the US and becoming one of the most successful remixes of all time.
Please, Jamaica, let's start thinking independently and communicating uncompromisingly for Jamaica's future. Commit to end selective listening and tribal hearing. I've tried to communicate over the past decade that citizenship means contributing to nation-building. It isn't a grab-bag contest at a fair.
Marking an 'X' every five years doesn't begin to discharge citizenship's responsibilities, especially as your expression by vote is severely restricted in our system of anti-democracy. Listen keenly. Watch closely. Identify reality and refuse to be tricked by illusion. Speak your truth to power always. Remember, in this worldly existence, nothing is as it appears.
Peace and love.
- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.