Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Building integrity

Published:Sunday | December 21, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Politicians now have an excellent opportunity to help themselves even more as they conduct the business of government!

We, the inhabitants of Blyland, hardly weigh with any balance and fairness the enormous

pressures brought to bear by 'the people' upon those competing for office and holding elected office and the stamina it takes to resist. We much prefer to think of the politicians as always the initiators of corruption. The instigators of the let-off. It is so comforting and absolving.

A joint select committee of Parliament last week began deliberations on The Integrity Commission Act, 2014. When passed, this major piece of legislation will go a long way to help parliamentarians to dismount a dangerous tiger without being eaten. Carpe diem! They should seize the opportunity.

The Integrity Commission Act, among its several functions, will help to clean up politics and governance while reducing corruption, and the burdens that politicians now carry. The act will join other important developments like the actions of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) to eliminate the incentives of violence and foul play in elections; the massive reduction of the discretionary granting of waivers by the minister of finance; and actions to drag the funding of political parties and campaign financing into the open.

Under the law now, no candidate or party can benefit from election fraud and violence. The pressure from shottas to bring home the votes, sometimes more than 100 per cent of registered voters in a constituency, for a food has, therefore, disappeared. We have had at least one politician, Heather Robinson, resigning rather than 'hug up' gunmen offering enforcement services for hire, as she publicly declared then.

WAIVER FAVOUR FEES

With the contraction of discretionary tax waivers, a minister of finance and his party in Government are liberated from a great deal of the pressure to grant waiver favours for a fee. 'Fees' paid in as undisclosed political contributions.

The country has largely misunderstood the move to finance political parties from public revenue. The issue has been framed, with great popular appeal, as a self-serving diverting of scarce public resources by politicians from providing public services, already poorly delivered, to their parties, which are widely viewed as abusing state resources while in government. But it is precisely because political parties run the state as government when elected, unlike any other civic grouping, that we have to take steps in law, as many other countries have done, to ensure that they are not manipulated under the table by the money and power of special-interest groups and individuals, towards their own advantage.

State financing for properly constituted, registered and regulated political parties is a big step in that right direction of reducing undue influence. The tax dollars expended today for that purpose will be offset and multiplied tomorrow by a reduction in the cost of corruption because of the manipulation of the political process.

We must follow through with the disclosure of party and campaign donations. Some people are up in arms against the proposition of disclosure to the high-credibility ECJ. In our political and cultural environment where victimisation and discrimination, and worse, over politics, are serious issues, disclosure to a trusted independent agency with bipartisan minority membership has distinct practical advantages over full public disclosure, a fair and reasonable compromise under the circumstances.

Denying the political parties state support and cramping their capacity to generate private support with reasonable transparency and without undue influence is not good strategy for cleaner politics and a less-corrupt society. We must reduce how loudly money talks in politics and governance.

The Integrity Commission Act (ICA), 2014, long in coming, but which can do so much to dampen demands upon politicians to act corruptly, joins these clean-up developments. It is "an act to promote and enhance standards of ethical conduct for parliamentarians, public officials and other persons by consolidating laws relating to the prevention of corruption and the award, monitoring and investigating of government contracts and prescribed licences, and to provide for the establishment of a single body to be known as the Integrity Commission to promote and strengthen the measures for the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of acts of corruption ... ."

INDEPENDENT COMMISSION

The ICA will establish an Integrity Commission as a

commission of Parliament with investigative and prosecutorial powers and which will "act independently" and "not be subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority other than the court by way of judicial review".

Concerns, which I share, have been raised about the potential for abuse of power by such a powerful body merging and consolidating the functions of three existing anti-corruption agencies: The Corruption Prevention Commission, the Parliamentary Integrity of Members Commission, and the Office of the Contractor General. The act protects remedy and right of appeal and objection. The functions of prosecution and investigation are to be performed separately by different divisions of the commission. Anyone making reckless, false or misleading complaints of corruption to the commission "is liable on summary conviction in a resident magistrate's court to a fine not exceeding $1 million or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year".

We are prone to think of fighting corruption in terms of making and enforcing tougher laws against 'dem' and sending corrupt public officials to prison. There are other critical things to be done: Procedures in public service delivery have to be made far more efficient and less painful, thereby minimising the incentive to get through via under-the-table deals. And the public needs to be broadly educated on the cost of corruption to everyone and its negative impact upon the whole society and its governance, thereby becoming a powerful advocacy force for the reduction of corruption "in the public interest".

The Integrity Commission, by law, will tackle the full range of anti-corruption actions. Not only will the commission investigate and prosecute, but it will examine practices and procedures in public agencies and make recommendations for revisions aimed at reducing acts of corruption. The commission will develop codes of conduct,and advise the designated minister on legislative reform for the reduction of corruption, as well as on international best practices. It is to conduct public education on matters relating to corruption.

The Integrity Commission "may, in the performance of its functions, work in cooperation with any person or body as it may deem appropriate", and commissioners can be appointed "who represent civil-society groups that appear to be well established".

National Integrity Action, of which I am a board director, has been doing its fair bit on all fronts over its three years of existence for the reduction of corruption and the building of integrity. The civil-society organization has just released its second public education documentary, Building Integrity - A Work in Progress following an earlier one, The Cost of Corruption - Jamaica's Barrier to Prosperity.

NIA made a submission to the joint select committee last Tuesday, although the submission made by Justice Paul Harrison, chairman of the (Parliament) Integrity Commission, and the discussion it elicited, dominated the news.

"National Integrity Action offers strong support to the ICA (2014), regarding it as an important advance, a good step in the right direction, which may nevertheless be improved with amendments to ensure greater effectiveness", the written submission opened.

The NIA has noted and commended a number of "safeguards" in the act, including confidentiality of investigation, to protect against "unwarranted reputational damage", the veto powers of Parliament against the appointment of any commissioner, avoiding concentration of power in a single official, separated investigative and prosecutorial powers, and provisions for the review of the act within five years.

The NIA's concerns for improvements of the ICA include stronger protection of the director of investigation from any interference, as that office, as things now stand in the act, appears to have less autonomy than the present Office of the Contractor General. The director of investigation, also, should be specifically empowered to monitor and investigate the divestment of public assets, and with the authority to suspend the award of a contract or licence in breach of procurement rules, and proven to involve impropriety and irregularity, the NIA has proposed.

The ICA will go a long way to strengthen the fight against corruption while providing politicians with more freedom from the pressure of the 'bly'. But the success of the act will, to a very great degree, be determined by its funding, which will be provided solely by Parliament. With severe scarcity of resources the order of the day, public sentiment at the moment is very much more in favour of spending on projects from which man can 'eat a food' and communities can see tangible immediate benefits, like roads and water. A lot of public education is going to be needed on how, and why, corruption hurts these projects and hurts the poor most.

n Martin Henry is a university administrator and

public-affairs analyst. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.