Rosalea Hamilton | Need for oversight and accountability, especially now – Part II
In Part I, ‘Parliamentary Oversight’ and ‘Executive accountability’ was interpreted through the lens of our Constitution which gives Parliament ‘collective responsibility’ for Cabinet’s direction and control of government (s.69(2)).
To give meaning to Parliament’s collective responsibility for Cabinet decisions, a fundamental question was posed that can be applied to the recent findings by the auditor general tabled in Parliament on November 17, 2020, highlighting the absence of established objective criteria and documented guidelines in the management of the Constituency Development Fund (CDF): Will the CDF Parliamentary Committee investigations lead to a bipartisan vote, in the public’s interest, and corrective action taken to “reduce the risk of exploitation, nepotism, and misuse of funds”, independent of the Cabinet?
To improve the effectiveness of parliamentary oversight and executive accountability, especially since taxpayers will pay J$7.5 billion (US$50 million) for a new parliament building, I suggest the need to urgently change the status quo, given the COVID-19-related challenges, worsened by climate change. Here, I examine how to change the status quo.
I suggest a comprehensive approach that focuses not only on strengthening accountability mechanisms, but, importantly, on strengthening legislative oversight of the executive.
1. Strengthening accountability mechanisms, including inter alia:
a. Ensuring that the terms of reference for parliamentary committees (PCs) include regular review of relevant public-sector reports with the power to interrogate relevant public officers as required. Given the recent incidents of infrastructure collapsing, the Infrastructure and Physical Development PC should be examining National Works Agency Reports with the view to sanctioning breaches where they are found and removing persons from office if necessary.
b. Enacting the Constitution (Amendment) (Impeachment) Bill (2011) which provides for the impeachment of members of parliament (MPs) and senators for impeachable offences. Prime Minister Holness noted: “This will add another layer of protection of the Parliament to ensure that only members of unquestioned integrity sit in the Parliament.” In the last election, neither political party promised to enact the bill.
c. Improving technical support in the legislature and the executive, especially in analysing budgetary decisions, by establishing an Independent Fiscal Council (IFC) as was approved by Cabinet in 2018. An IFC can play an important public finance watchdog role, improve budget debates, as well as the efficiency and effectiveness in spending taxpayers’ dollars. Minister Clarke noted that it would “foster greater transparency” and “deepen democratic accountability”, and committed to a consultative approach to the design of the IFC. Let’s do it.
2. These mechanisms, however, do not adequately address the institutional constraints that limit effective legislative oversight. Executive dominance of Parliament’s agenda, its legislative programme and order of business fetters legislative oversight of the executive. The size of executive relative to the legislature matters. The larger the share of MPs with ministerial positions, the more unlikely the legislature is able to hold the executive accountable. Further, prime ministerial power to appoint and dismiss ministers is an effective leverage over the legislature that weakens oversight, as supporters are rewarded, while opponents and critics are sidelined. Enlarging the number of legislators relative to the executive can strengthen legislative oversight, especially if MPs are independently financed, accountable and supported by their constituents, and are committed to representing their will and not the will of the party leader.
3. Significantly, democratic governance must be honed and incubated in the practices and habits of the political parties so that when they become the government, democratic oversight and accountability can be easier to implement. The tradition of democracy and related social behaviour must first be institutionalised in the rules, structure and operations of the party machinery so that our political leaders and followers develop the self-confidence, knowledge, responsibilities, and habits of democratic governance. This includes cross-party dialogue that fosters consensus building mechanisms that can be replicated in the PCs. The experience of democracy at the root of the party, in each constituency, must be independently financed to anchor and secure real accountability to the people. In his landmark work, Party Politics in the West Indies, CLR James highlighted the significance of this, noting: “The internal life of the party cannot be separated from its public responsibilities.” He warned that “This divorce between the party as government and party as people represents a serious danger not only to the party but to the country.”
4. Finally, people power matters. Strengthening oversight and accountability is almost impossible as long as our popular political culture accepts and perpetuates the status quo of unfettered Cabinet and party leadership decisions financed by the traditional elite. This is perhaps the most difficult to change, especially now. Many of us are wedded to the licky-licky political culture because it is real and tangible. People can literally ‘eat a food’. At a time when democratic ideals have been challenged by one of the oldest democracies in the world, scepticism about the benefits of democratic outcomes is real. Public discourse is now crucial as well as independently organised citizen actions that challenges the status quo and actively builds real alternatives.
Wael Ghonim, author of Revolution 2.0, reminds us: “The power of the people is greater than the people in power.” CLR James clarifies this power for us:
“… the people have no power unless they are independently organized – any government that is not aware of the power of the people is bound to be a bad government, that is to say, it will fool you, cheat you, and if need be reduce you to hewers of wood and drawers of water, and without mercy keep you in what it considers to be your place. That is the last hill which the people of the West Indies will have to climb. It is the hardest of all. When you climb it you will have arrived at a height from which you will never fall.”