Wed | Sep 18, 2019

Editorial | Rank politicians against anti-corruption benchmarks

Published:Monday | August 19, 2019 | 12:10 AM

Howard Mitchell’s proposal for the private sector to seriously assess the behaviour of politicians, and formally declaring its intention so to do before funding their activities, is a step in the right direction that ought to be expanded into a broader framework for political accountability and the fight against corruption. He may wish, though, to focus on more than politicians.

What Mr Mitchell, as a businessman and president of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ), who frequently rails against the abuse and misuse of public resources, clearly appreciates is that money talks. The obvious extension of this is that business people with bulging pocketbooks, upon whom politicians regularly call for cash, are likely to possess greater leverage than the swathe of anti-corruption agencies that have been largely ineffectual in holding public officials to account.

Mr Mitchell’s latest suggestion, which he hopes to have the PSOJ formalise in a resolution at its conference later this year, came in the wake of much-criticised remarks by two senior People’s National Party (PNP) politicians, Mikael Phillips and Basil Waite, about opponents, which could raise tensions and undermine the peace. The idea, in the circumstance, would be to hit the duo, and others who break the Political Code of Conduct, where it will hurt.

The point is, election campaigns in Jamaica have become a too-expensive business. For instance, a candidate for a parliamentary seat in Jamaica can spend up to J$10 million on his campaign. With 63 seats in the House, it means that the candidates representing either of the two political parties, the PNP or the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), could cumulatively spend J$630 million. Put another way, the combined spending undertaken by the candidates themselves can reach J$1.26 billion.

That figure, however, does not include the J$630 million each that the parties can themselves spend on campaign activities, if they do not specifically contribute to the expenditure of a constituency candidate.

The upshot: Between the JLP and the PNP and their candidates, J$2.52 billion could be spent on an election campaign. This, however, doesn’t include spending by parties and politicians outside the campaign season. The anecdotal evidence suggests that the limit is usually reached, and perhaps surpassed. But there is little public accounting for that money, including the portion contributed by the legitimate private sector, as represented by Mr Mitchell. Filings by the candidates and parties to the Electoral Commission aren’t made public.

Opaque arrangement

This opaque arrangement lends to the creation of an environment where it is easier for corruption to thrive. The public does not really know who is paying the piper and, therefore, what tune may have been paid for. The parties and the Parliament are not in a mood to enhance transparency. And up to now, the Integrity Commission, like most of the old agencies which it has subsumed, hasn’t demonstrated the appetite to be bold and aggressive in the fight against corruption.

For now, in the absence of a blitzkrieg by state institutions against graft, kickbacks and other forms of misbehaviour in public office, a guerilla fight by invested individuals and organisations, such as the PSOJ, is critical. The private-sector body, working with, say, the anti-corruption group National Integrity Action, might develop criteria to be met by parties and politicians before being eligible for the PSOJ’s seal of approval and, thereby, other private-sector entities.The benchmarks for the seal, and relative ranking for each of these, could perhaps include a politician’s language in public discourse, timeliness in filing assets and liability reports, and the transparency of such undertakings, including actions taken within a ministerial portfolio.

Indeed, with regard to the latter, ministers and their agencies might be annually rated in relation to their performance against transparency and anti-corruption benchmarks.