Sat | Dec 16, 2017

Gordon Robinson | Gods, dummy-gods and God-awful headlines

Published:Sunday | October 1, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Donna Parchment-Brown, the political ombudsman.
Contractor General Dirk Harrison.
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Jamaicans can become carried away with temporary authority and are prone to inflating its scope.

Recent hyperbole regarding the offices of the political ombudsman (PO) and contractor general (CG) has rekindled these unfortunate tendencies. Under a most misleading headline, a response by the PM at a press conference was erroneously extrapolated and made to appear a direct rebuke of the PO when that authority wasn't mentioned.

The headline: 'Not you, madam! I am answerable to the contractor general, prime minister tells political ombudsman' (Gleaner, September 22).

Apparently bewitched by the headline, one Canute Thompson, PhD (described in the footer only as "head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning at UWI" but who is also a certified management consultant who has worked in several government ministries including education, health, social development, and national security), in an open letter to PM Holness, recorded as purported historical fact:

"You told Mrs Donna Parchment-Brown that you are not accountable/answerable to the political ombudsman."

Oh, dear! What a tangled web we weave when we are so easily deceived. Of course, PM said no such thing. What The Gleaner actually reported was: "Holness said the CG is the constituted authority to oversee the contracting process, in addition to the National Contracts Commission, which has a statutory role in ensuring that the contract process is above board.

"I respond to them in these matters,' said Holness ...."

 

150% CORRECT

 

In this, the PM is 150 per cent correct.

Previously, according to RJR news: "The political ombudsman has written to the prime minister raising concern about the timing of the $626-million Junction road project in St Mary ... .

PO Donna Parchment-Brown, on Tuesday afternoon, outlined the contents of two letters sent to Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

She said that the letters were drafted against the background of concerns raised by the CG about last year's $600-million bushing programme that was carried out ahead of the local government election.

In her letters, Mrs Parchment-Brown said that she requested the prime minister's feedback on matters concerning "the way in which the contracts were assigned [and] the work packages were developed, the role of certain ministers, the role of facilitators and others in handling public money and the timing of the project."

So, tribalists might want to infer from the PM's statement that he refuses to respond to the PO, but I prefer to paraphrase what the PM said as follows: "I answer to the CG in matters relating to the award of government contracts, and to the PO, matters relating to the code of political conduct." But that simple logic doesn't sell newspapers, while 'NOT YOU, MADAM' screaming at prospective purchasers from a banner front-page headline might.

That Young Andrew is willing to go so far is testament to his bona fides. Why? Because although I say he's 150 per cent correct, he's wrong in law because no PM, as PM, is answerable to either authority. If Young Andrew was that sort of individual, he could say to the PO, "Ask the JLP", or to the CG, "Ask the NWA (or Ministry responsible for Works)."

Since The Cowboy rode into town on his white horse and turned the OCG into what often looks like a bumbling, bungling, bruising bully, Jamaicans have been confused as to the OCG's real nature, role, and function. The CG is a parliamentary creation, and, accordingly, works for Parliament, not the other way around. CG monitors government contracts' awards by "public bodies" (MPs don't award government contracts) to ensure propriety and reports his findings to Parliament. Parliament doesn't report to him.

"Public body" is defined in the Contractor-General Act as:

"(a) A ministry, department or agency of government;

(b) A statutory body or authority; or

(c) A company owned or influenced (by shareholding) by Government."

So, popular belief that the OCG is entitled to go around "investigating" MPs like a one-eyed detective in a rumpled trench coat is rubbish. This CG's intemperate public remark referencing the as-yet-untabled report on St Ann Municipal Corporation-awarded contracts as uncovering sins far worse than the nepotism uncovered at the Hanover Municipal Corporation sent JLP/PNP antagonists frothing at the mouth anticipating it'll 'Dunn' the MP. That can't happen.

If, however, MP, Cabinet minister, or PM is summoned as a witness in any OCG investigation, he/she must answer the OCG's questions without reservation. He/she must assist in the investigation, especially as he/she cannot be the target thereof. In that limited sense, PMs are "answerable" to the CG.

The PO is a different creature altogether, and the roles of these two important authorities can NEVER intersect. Section 12 of the Political Ombudsman Act:

"Subject to this section, the political ombudsman shall investigate ANY ACTION TAKEN BY A POLITICAL PARTY (my emphasis), its members or supporters, where he is of the opinion that such action ... ."

Neither "the timing of the $626-million Junction road project ..." nor "last year's $600-million debushing programme" is any of the ombudsman's concern, and she has far overstepped her remit when she asks for "the prime minister's feedback on matters concerning the way in which contracts were assigned, the way in which work packages were developed, the role of certain ministers, the role of facilitators and others in handling public money and the timing of the project'."

None of these matters were undertaken by any political party, and, in sticking her nose into issues of government-awarded contracts, she's usurping the OCG's role. Where was she or her illustrious predecessor when a PNP government decided to "run wid it" immediately before the 2002 general election?

So, when Dr (Hardi) Canute, apparently anxious to drive nails into a perceived JLP coffin, writes the following bollocks, "But if the Jamaican people are sovereign, Prime Minister, how can you not be accountable to the political ombudsman both as an individual citizen and a holder of a public office?", he's one or more of dyslexic, misinformed, misled, confused, or high. WTF has sovereignty got to do with legal accountability and jurisdiction? The CG investigates public bodies' contractual activities while the PO investigates political parties' activities. Neither has any core jurisdiction over any cabinet member or MP. If the people are sovereign, Hardi, why isn't the PM accountable to the Jamaica Racing Commission chairman when a government contract is awarded? Sheesh!

The hype seems to have encouraged the PNP to continue the self-destructive path it foolishly pursued in 2016 by hammering Young Andrew personally on road works for which its own MP relentlessly lobbied and which are sorely needed by the people it wants to vote for PNP's candidate in an upcoming by-election. It appears that new PNP Leader Peter Phillips hasn't learned the lessons carefully distilled by his party colleagues from their savagely critical review of the 2016 campaign. He continues to attack a nationally popular PM personally and sound churlishly unhappy now that citizens of St Mary, over a period of months, should finally benefit from much-needed road repairs.

I continue to hope (because as a father of three, I've no choice) that Peter Phillips, who comes to political leadership in Jamaica at a watershed time, will resist being led by the nose by tribalists with personal agendas; open his eyes; see the big picture; accept the SE St Mary by-election for what it is, namely, a minor political skirmish that can't and won't win state power for the PNP; focus on Jamaica's urgent need for structural reconstruction as a non-negotiable condition precedent to national progress and prosperity; and eschew narrow, backward, redundant, ugly politics of personality. Next time?

There are encouraging signs such as the PNP's new shadow Cabinet that took too long to be unveiled, but, in the end, Peter Phillips has done an excellent job of seeking as much potential renewal as was possible with the material at hand. Save for the inexplicable retention of past-sell-by-date Ronnie Thwaites in education (why not combine this with Damion's shadow-portfolio?), the line-up features a skilful mix of personnel and subjects so that rejected former ministers shadowing their former portfolios is minimised.

Now, Peter, when does actual renewal begin?

Peace and love.

- GordonRobinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.