Tue | Jun 18, 2019

Editorial | Mr Holness’ arc of moral authority

Published:Sunday | May 19, 2019 | 12:13 AM

Until he conforms to the law, or unless the Integrity Commission is incompetent or guilty of misfeasance, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has forfeited his moral authority to expound on weighty matters of governance, or hold to account members of his Government who may be guilty of malfeasance or nonfeasance.

To be clear, this newspaper does not accuse, or intend to suggest, that Mr Holness has engaged in any questionable action that brought him personal gain, used his office with such intent, or that he did something that was manifestly corrupt. But these are not the only benchmarks by which to judge prime ministers. The moral and ethical bars ought to be higher for them. After all, as we observed previously, prime ministers are not only entrusted with enormous power to manage the country’s affairs, we vest them with the authority to articulate a collective vision of our society. And that we expect to be something larger and more substantive than our individual selves.

It is important, therefore, to recall a critical value which Mr Holness established for his prime ministership when he came to office in 2016 and on which he has often expounded since. He talked about building trust, but having that trust underpinned by action. “There is only so much trust that pledges and statements of commitment can buy,” he said in his inaugural address.

That remark was about a country in which eight in 10 people believe public officials are corrupt, and critical institutions of Government and State, including political parties, the legislature and the constabulary, are held in low esteem. When, in 2017, Parliament approved the law to establish the Integrity Commission, to subsume three existing anti-corruption agencies, Mr Holness remarked that while Jamaica had made significant strides in the more than half century since its independence, it would have done much better, but for corruption.

It is against that backdrop that this newspaper finds troubling that the Integrity Commission is still unable to sign off on Mr Holness’ income, assets and liabilities statement for 2016, the year he became prime minister. He was one of seven current, and former, legislators, based on the commission’s 2017 report, recently tabled in Parliament, it was unable to clear.

APOLOGISE UNRESERVEDLY

Context and sequence are important here. The annual integrity filings by parliamentarians are for calendar years. The contentious one, therefore, would have been due on December 31, 2016, but legislators have three months, until the end of March, the following year, to make their submissions. In this case, all of Mr Holness’ documentation should have been in by March 31, 2017.

The problem is, as is often the case with parliamentarians, about which its predecessor agencies regularly complained, the Integrity Commission apparently found Mr Holness’ filing incomplete, absent of critical supporting documents, although the specific information the commission demanded has not been revealed. What is known is that up to May 13, more than two years after the due and final filing dates, Mr Holness had not complied to the satisfaction of the commission. “I can report that as today (May 13) the status remains the same,” Commissioner Pamela Monroe Ellis told reporters.

While Mr Holness is not exclusive in this failure, he is a uniquely different category. He is the prime minister, and thus leader of the Government and country. On him rests a greater moral obligation to comply with the regulations and the law, unless he has an extremely compelling explanation, which, if he has offered, the commission hasn’t bought, and of which the public doesn’t know.

Mr Holness, by virtue of office, sets the tone. The longer the prime minister takes to comply and the Integrity Commission does nothing, the greater the likelihood that others will follow. And the weaker the institution becomes. That is why the commission, with regard to Mr Holness, and others, should exercise its powers under the law.

At the same time, Mr Holness must fulfil his obligation and apologise unreservedly to Jamaica for his transgression.