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Ian Boyne | Blowing the Horne on corruption

Published:Sunday | September 4, 2016 | 9:00 AM

We are grateful to the internecine war in the People's National Party (PNP) for the recent revelations of alleged campaign finance corruption and for putting this issue on the front burner. Otherwise, to evoke Michael Peart's memorable imagery, we would be consigned to the customary vault-like secrecy of the PNP.

I am not shocked, stunned, or alarmed by the allegations that party officials have siphoned off huge sums of money into their own pockets or their personal electoral campaigns or that they received kickbacks from private companies. If I were, as a senior journalist, that would be a confession of unpardonable naivety. And an admission that I have no good sources within the political class.

The leak of PNP treasurer Norman Horne's report of how its central treasury was robbed of funds to win back state power was shocking enough to the simplistic and idealistic, but the worse was yet to come. It was one thing for Horne to reveal that senior party members/candidates "were actively in the market for what seemed to be the sole benefit of their personal campaigns and collected significant amounts from members of the private sector, who were earmarked by the treasury as potential substantial donors for the benefit of the PNP ...".

Horne seems to have the goods on the miscreants, for he said, "on numerous occasions, information received by the treasury from potential donors was that contributions had already been made to senior party members for the benefit of the party. However, only a few members reported or accounted in full or even in part for the receipt of these donations to the treasury or party executive."

Well, that is one thing, and scandalous and reprehensible enough, showing, if it is true, the lack of integrity of those persons and their absolute unsuitability for state power. But what should be even more disturbing to the public is what was allegedly said in March at the PNP's National Executive Council (NEC) by party General Secretary Paul Burke. Again, had Burke and Omar Davies been on the same battle lines in this PNP uncivil war, we would never have heard about his statement. It wouldn't be made.

 

SPILLING THE BEANS

 

It is out of the dialectics of the internal struggle - Comrades will understand the language - that we now know, as alleged and not denied by Burke, that he had said matter-of-factly that it was the established practice for Chinese firms to pay an agent's fee for state contracts and that loyal party officials/ministers would dutifully pass on much of that loot to the party so that it could hold on to state power.

Remember, it is the publicity surrounding the recently leaked Horne report that loosened Omar's tongue.

The charges had been made by Burke from March, and he would have heard about them from then, but they drew no public condemnation from him until now.

It is the fast-approaching September-to-remember PNP conference that which is heating up the place. Dialecticsthesis, antithesis, but no synthesis yet. What Burke reportedly decried and lambasted was not the brazen and unmistakable act of corruption in taking bribes and kickbacks, but the party treason of not handing over most of the spoils. Did the NEC explode in outrage over the "revelation" that it was established practice to hand over corrupt money to the party? Did anyone get up and say this practice, however established, must stop now? Did anyone feel so violated, so incensed, that he decided to leak the information to the press so something could be done about it?

It is good that Omar has sought to clear his name. And, quite frankly, though I am generally cynical about politicians, I would indeed be surprised if he were involved. If you know Omar's lifestyle, it would be hard to figure out what he would want to do with US$10 or $12 million! He lives very modestly and you can't even accuse him of dressing well. I wouldn't associate him with corruption. So I see why he felt compelled to come out to clear his name. But it's more than clearing one individual's name. The credibility and integrity of a whole party are at stake.

And it matters not whether the same thing is happening in the Jamaica Labour Party. It is one thing for corruption to exist in an institution. It is quite another thing for it to permeate to such an extent that an official could so casually and without howls of protest mention an "established" practice of corruption and just blithely move on to the next item on the agenda. That speaks to culture. And, institutionalisation, if it is true.

What has happened to the soul of the PNP? I put it to you that as the PNP has lost its ideological roots, as it has become a more pragmatic, pro-capitalist party ashamed of its socialist past; and as it has become simply political machinery to win elections, it has become vulnerable to corruption. Edward Seaga and I have had many political discussions over the decades, particularly when he was opposition leader. It didn't matter that I didn't always agree with him. He loved a good conversation and we would discuss books and ideas.

 

Individualistic party

 

Right after he began to make public noises about the danger of tainted money coming into the JLP and having an influence, I went over to see him at his New Kingston office for one of our intense discussions. He made a point I have never forgotten. "Ian, the big difference between the PNP and the JLP is that the PNP has ideology. In the JLP, we don't stress ideology. It's a more individualistic party. It is easier for every man to be for himself and his own interest. That is why integrity, morality, and systems are important to the JLP. for while the PNP has ideology to guide them, in the JLP, you have to have your integrity and a commitment to service, for we don't have that natural control of ideology."

He said he had a fear that if the JLP lost that commitment to serve the people's interest, without the ideological anchor like the PNP, it could be overrun by corruption. That discussion came back to me last week as I contemplated this PNP scandal. Portia cannot personally be accused of corruption. Whatever you want to say about her, she is closer to the socialist Michael Manley ideologically than others in the party. She has not lost her ideological moorings, despite the neo-liberal turn of the PNP to win International Monetary Fund approval.

A part of the reason no one can credibly associate Portia with corruption (though she must decisively tackle it now) is that she, like Seaga, is from a school of politics where you entered to serve and make a difference. We need to have campaign finance reform. We need to have an independent investigation into this PNP scandal, and people must be named, shamed, and punished severely. Every possible agency that could have an interest in this investigation must jump in and go after the corrupt aggressively.

Use this to change systems so that no political party can get away with these things again - if the allegations are true. But apart from that, we need to open a discussion about the importance of ethics in politics. Yes, "systems, not men", but we need honourable, principled men and women in politics. For with the best systems in the world, immoral, greedy, wealth-addicted people will find a way to shaft the public interest.

Michael Sandel, in his book, What Money Can't Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, says: "Our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a very heavy price: It has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics that afflicts many societies today."

This is a discourse many of our commentators are not prepared for as they will merely milk political mileage over what is really a larger threat and one not confined to the PNP.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.