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Editorial | Now that Dr Wheatley is out

Published:Tuesday | July 31, 2018 | 12:00 AM

It was a long, circumlocutory process, but Prime Minister Andrew Holness finally prevailed on Andrew Wheatley to leave the Cabinet. That is a positive development for governance, as well as for the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), and the politics of the Wheatley imbroglio. It can now better concentrate on the business of government, while seeking to staunch any loss of support it may have suffered over the past several weeks.

But the matter is not over, especially for Prime Minister Holness. He has the added challenge of repairing his reputation, insofar as it has been tarnished, as a forthright and decisive leader who stands on principle, with his face turned hard against corruption, or the perception thereof.

There is no evidence, and we make no claim, that Dr Wheatley, the former minister for energy, science and technology, is corrupt or guilty of any ethical lapses for which he ought to be brought to book legally. But there was, at the very least, an obvious display of poor judgement on the part of Dr Wheatley that created a culture of permissiveness in the agencies for which he had oversight that caused them to be clouded by suspicion, if not fall into disrepute.

For instance, at the oil refinery, Petrojam, Dr Wheatley appointed a board with a chairman who was paid for travel he never undertook, yet only refunded the company when it became a public scandal. Staff appeared to have been removed with impunity and others hired at stratospheric salaries, even when they may not have had the advertised minimum qualifications for the post.

The CEO of another agency, which itself is under probe over cases of fraud, had multiple criminal convictions, albeit going back two decades, about which her employers, ostensibly, were unaware. This same CEO is also a party in another controversy over the attempt of the chairman of another agency in Dr Wheatley's portfolio to foist her on to a shortlist of candidates for a senior position.

And these are not all the allegations. Indeed, some about the economic management of Petrojam are potentially more substantive.

A month ago, in what appeared to be a decision of the Cabinet, rather than direct action of the prime minister, Dr Wheatley gave up the energy section of his portfolio, but continued to sit in the Cabinet as the minister for science and technology. According to Mr Holness, this was to allow for investigations to proceed at Petrojam, apparently in the absence of Dr Wheatley and without the presumption of guilt on his part.


Fallacy of natural justice


But there was a fig-leafed fallacy in this invoking of natural justice. For Dr Wheatley continued to sit in the Cabinet and be party to any discussions by this principal organ of policy on any matter relating to Petrojam, including the ongoing probe, or any other institution dealing with energy. The continuous drip-drip on the science and technology fronts finally forced Dr Wheatley's resignation.

Mr Holness has not only inveighed against corruption publicly, but has said it will not be tolerated in his Government, whether in deed or perception. We take the prime minister at his word. But his word has not always been matched by the firmness or pace of his actions.

The Wheatley case, however, could be decisive in how Jamaicans perceive Mr Holness and his Government. The prime minister should have decisively removed Dr Wheatley from the Cabinet early, rather than leaving it as a grudging, negotiated departure. Much will depend on how Mr Holness handles the matter going forward.