Sat | Oct 19, 2019

Ronald Thwaites | Of Cabinet secrecy

Published:Monday | October 7, 2019 | 12:07 AM

Last week’s big issue was the Holness administration’s failed effort (he says with the understanding of the Opposition!?) to gut open governance by hiding from the public all Cabinet papers for a period of 70 years – almost three generations.

Now, I will wager that there exists no other set of minutes more ­circumspectly written and saccharine in character than those of the Jamaican Cabinet. The submissions, too, are ­carefully crafted by ­bureaucrats to avoid all controversy and ­elevate blandness to a high virtue. The ­comments by individual ministers are never attributed and decisions, rather than discourse, are all that are reported. The proceedings are important, but mostly routine and humdrum.

So I wonder why the present ­members of the Cabinet are so zealous to safeguard the secrecy of these proceedings beyond their lifetimes. And why are they predicting fearful reticence by ministers from now on, scared of speaking their truth because the decisions in which they took part will be disclosed to the public? The same public, of course, who they represent, whose money they are spending and to protect whose rights they swore to uphold the Constitution.

Please do not try to reduce this point to the absurd by thinking that we are suggesting that Cabinet should conduct its business in public. There is a logic for confidentiality for a limited period, not least so that conclusions can be implemented. The 10-year ­provision applicable in Trinidad and Tobago seems adequate, except in ­special circumstances relating to national security or acute reputational concerns.

Scrutiny begets responsibility, and where there is an apprehension of ­corruption, sunlight is the best ­disinfectant. Cabinet is not a ­confessional. The Star Chamber was abolished centuries ago in Britain for the same reasons why anti-fascist, libertarian Jamaicans rose up last Tuesday afternoon after the ‘jim-screechy’ effort to muzzle truth and memory was laid in the Parliament.

And it nearly got passed. If there had not been quick objection, the Government was going to take it through as a matter of little consequence. And would the Opposition have objected? As it was, the increasingly fussy speaker would not even allow for the objections to be expressed fully.

AUTHORITARIANISM

There is a mentality of growing state authoritarianism behind this issue. What is in the Cabinet papers about the time of the 1976 state of emergency that the national interest would require to be suppressed 43 years later? And even if there is ­something, to move from that particular to the general banning of all documents for 70 years indicates a collective ‘don’t-give-me-no-talk’ frame of mind residing in the Cabinet room right now, which is dangerous and evil because it attacks the very principle of transparent government.

It gets worse, too, when we ­overheard an invitee to Cabinet ­suggesting on public radio that the alternative to the 70-year gag could be the imperious exemption of Cabinet proceedings FOREVER by the prime minister. That this was even countenanced displays an abusive thinking about power among our governors about which the nation should really be afraid.

Give thanks for the swift and ­thunderous vigilance of the press and the one and two institutions who defend human rights and good ­governance. They, once they have not sold out, and, sadly, as much and ­perhaps more so than Parliament, proved to be the defenders of Jamaican liberty. Note that we have not heard a peep from any church or major ­business interest.

And please, no more ­diversionary tactics. There is no need for any joint select committee to further hold up the reforms to the Access to Information Act, themselves the fruit of a committee’s diligent work, which has been languishing in the House of Representatives since 2011. I have been trying, without success, to get these debated from November 2017.

After the horrid mistake of last week, why not wheel and come again by starting that debate tomorrow? Go even further by allowing contributions from the Bar of the House.

Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.