Mon | May 27, 2019

Editorial | Gov’t owes explanation for NIDS actions

Published:Friday | April 19, 2019 | 12:15 AM

There is logic to the Opposition’s demand that the Government account for its spending on the development of the National Identification System, now that the Supreme Court has held that the law on which it was predicated is unconstitutional. The Holness administration, therefore, should comply.

However, it should see the matter not merely as an exercise in financial reporting, but an opportunity to provide its rationale for an approach that many people will construe to have been illogical. The administration appeared to have been going full steam ahead with the project, while the legality of the legislation was before the court and the possibility of success was, at best, as with all court cases, 50/50. One party is as liable to lose as is the other to win.

Even as the Government prepares its explanation – including the provision of data on draw-downs on the US$68 million it had borrowed from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), US$13.6 million of which was specifically for the project, and any interest payments thereon – it should also frame a case for a moratorium on payments to the bank. We believe the IDB would have a moral obligation to accept this request, given the intervention of its president in the debate, when the matter was still before court.

It is common ground that there is broad support in Jamaica, including by the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP), for a national identification system of some sort. What is not agreed is what form that ID should take.

The one proposed by the Holness administration would give each resident a unique identification number and a card bearing biometric, biographical and demographic information, which could be digitally crossreferenced with similar data in a central database. The ID would be required to do business with, or acquire benefits from, the Government.

But last week, a three-judge Supreme Court panel agreed with the PNP that the law, given its compulsory nature, would infringe the constitutional right to privacy, as well as equality under law.

Although the case was before the court, the Government maintained an aggressive media advertising campaign, promoting the perceived social and economic benefits of the system and suggesting that its implications for people’s rights were being mischaracterised. The administration claimed it spent a mere J$5.45 million on that campaign between last June and November.

GOVERNANCE LESSONS

Further, on April 5, with the court’s preplanned ruling less than a fortnight away, the Government announced that a consortium, led by a Jamaican firm, PBS, would be awarded a US$31.8-million contract to provide hardware and software for the ID system. It is not immediately clear why that decision could not have waited and what obligation, if any, taxpayers now have to the company. That needs ventilation.

There are, too, lessons about good governance, which our Government has, hopefully, learned. We don’t doubt that it respects the court and the Constitution, but that respect, at all points, must be manifest.

Good governance and respect for the rule of law are among the principles by which the IDB urges hemispheric governments to abide, on which, in this matter, its signal was not the best.

Last August, with the matter already before the court, the bank’s president, Luis Alberto Moreno, who would have been expected to take a neutral stance, appeared to lecture on why the ID system, which his bank was financing, was good for Jamaicans.

“What I would say to the Jamaican people is, this is the road to modernity, this is the road to jump into the 21st century, and if you want your Government to push along and move away from being in the 19th century, in many ways, this is the way to do it," he said.

In another context, that might have been okay. In the existing circumstance, his statement may have been interpreted as the IDB’s imprimatur for the Government to plough ahead.