Editorial | Leave the tainted out of Cabinet
Andrew Holness, it would not have escaped anyone, made public accountability and honesty in government a central theme of his speech on being sworn in for his new term as prime minister (PM) after the Jamaica Labour Party’s (JLP) decisive victory in last week’s general election. As of now, he will command 48 of the 63 seats in the House of Representatives.
With such a “large and convincing mandate”, his great challenge, Mr Holness conceded, will be to manage expectations, attitude and behaviour of his majority, some of whom may interpret the scale of their party’s victory as a licence for arrogance, selfishness, complacency, and the pursuit of personal ambition. That is not on, Mr Holness insisted.
“... Those who hold those views,” the prime minister said, “...will be soon separated.” He must start immediately – with the structuring of his Cabinet.
Mr Holness has reasons to be concerned about corruption, or the perception thereof, which, in his inaugural address four years ago, he promised would get a short shrift from the Government he leads. For, despite his party having won 57 per cent of the popular vote in the September 3 election – albeit on a voter turnout of only 37 per cent – it happened notwithstanding his last administration being roiled by multiple allegations of self-dealing, cronyism and corruption.
Indeed, two of his ministers were forced to exit the Cabinet, and one of them, Ruel Reid, who held the education portfolio, along with family members and public officials, is before the courts for kickbacks and graft. The other, Andrew Wheatley, who was in charge of energy, science and technology, left against the backdrop of claims of nepotism and wanton spending, and misappropriation of funds at institutions for which he was responsible, by officials he caused to be installed. Indeed, the report by the Integrity Commission (IC) on the Petrojam oil refinery would have been cringe-worthy reading for Mr Holness.
At least two other ministers, accused of behaving in ways that would have brought benefits to either themselves or their families from public resources, were reassigned portfolios.
Mr Holness, however, insisted that no one in his administration who was accused of misbehaviour received special favours or were shielded from investigation. Further, he stressed, his administration had built out anti-corruption agencies like the IC and the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA), whose regulatory and resource strengthening would be completed early in this term.
“The challenge, however, is not just of resources and regulation,” Mr Holness said. “It is also one of will and culture – the will to change culture.” He, in the context, sought to rally JLP parliamentarians and prospective ministers to deep reflection, leading to behaviour that prevents actions “which weakens public trust and damages the reputation of the Government”.
In this respect, the PM will have the Integrity Commission run programmes for MPs and members of the executive to help them better under the anti-corruption laws and deepen their appreciation for his intention “that this will be an accountable Government”.
That plan has the full endorsement of this newspaper and, we expect, every right-thinking Jamaican.
Mr Holness, however, has an opportunity, especially with his “large and convincing” mandate, to immediately set the tone and give weight to the declarations of intolerance of corruption and his expectation of accountable behaviour, which punctuated Monday’s speech.
First, he must exclude from his Cabinet anyone over whom an unresolved investigation or prosecution – whether by the Integrity Commission or another agency – hangs.
Additionally, any MP who has outstanding assets and liabilities filings with the Integrity Commission, or from whom the IC has sought clarifying information, should be ineligible for Cabinet membership until that process is completed to the satisfaction of the commission.
Further, persons who may have escaped specific charges over past behaviours, either as minister or MP or public official, but who carry with them a dark cloud of suspicion, and are therefore carrying the risk of weakening public trust and undermining confidence in the Government, should also have no place in the Cabinet. This is entirely in his gift.
As Mr Holness acknowledged, he has a deep and diverse bench, including several young, energetic, and apparently talented people. He should make use of them, and of the opportunity, to bring greater gender balance to the Government.