Thu | Jul 18, 2019

Martin Henry | The downfall of a minister and the uplift of governance

Published:Sunday | March 24, 2019 | 12:17 AM

Former Minister of Education (and let’s not forget Youth and Information) and former Senator Ruel Reid wants to be back on the job at Jamaica College as principal tomorrow morning. A top-of-career job for which he is eminently suited as a Master Teacher.

The provisions of labour laws and of a generous Education Code may very well defeat those who wish to not have him back. We’ll see.

Reid’s requested resignation (aka firing) has pushed the prime minister’s truckload-of-goodies Budget Debate presentation, and, indeed, the whole Debate, out of the news and commentary cycle.

But, as currently conducted, what’s the point of the Budget Debate as far as determining policy, plans, and programmes for the next financial year? It is a dialogue of the deaf. And the whole Parliament gets little opportunity to carry out its constitutional duty to take action “for the peace, order, and good government of Jamaica”. That’s a crucial job for the Standing Finance Committee, which is the entire House of Representatives. But the rushed deliberations of the finance minister’s Budget over just two afternoons does not allow the job to be done, and positioning the Grand Debate after, rather than within or before, SFC deliberation does not help in crafting a better Budget.

Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Andrew Holness requested and received Reid’s resignation as minister in the face of allegations of impropriety in the ministry and agencies under his supervision. Reid chose to resign as senator as well.

The prime minister would have learned from the judicial ruling in the pre-signed resignation letters saga involving then Senators Tufton and Williams that he can’t just cancel senatorial appointments.

Both men have gone on to further service in public life. Arthur Williams has been appointed High Commissioner to Trinidad & Tobago. And Christopher Tufton, as minister of health, has just been polled the best-performing minister (measured how?) in the Holness Government.

Reid hopes to serve again. A lot is going to depend on outcomes.

INITIATED FROM THE GET-GO

One significant difference between the Wheatley-Petrojam, etc., corruption affair and the Reid-Education corruption affair the commentariat of which I am one of the longest-serving members, too easily sweeps off the table of public discourse, is the fact that law-enforcement investigations involving the minister himself have been initiated almost from the get-go in the Reid case.

Corruption is a little more involved than rumours, street allegations, personal feelings however righteous, and media trial. Corruption is a legal issue, defined in law and punishable in law.

The anti-corruption struggle with which I identify awaits a high-profile case to be investigated, brought to trial, leading to convictions. In this regard, law enforcement and the anti-corruption agencies of the State have been poor performers. You would think from the mass of rumours and allegations swirling out there and the public perception that we are drowning in corruption that several airtight high-profile cases could have been assembled.

A lot of hope is pinned on the newly established Integrity Commission (IC), with its strong law and investigative and prosecutorial powers. The IC has been struggling to find its feet and has taken a vow of silence, supported by its law, but certainly would be involved in the ongoing investigations of charges of impropriety and unlawful actions in the Education Ministry and some of its agencies.

The Uchence Wilson Gang trial, which is now running, might provide a good example of how patient and thorough investigation can lead to a chain of arrests and a strong case in court.

As I opined in one of many interviews on the Reid matter, “I think the prime minister has taken the correct course of action in light of the events unfolding and as far as we have the details about an investigation into activities at an educational institution. Once a police investigation is involved, we’ve moved away from the usual media-driven scandals and calls of corruption to a substantive issue, which is being investigated by law enforcement.”

I added that Holness has very little control over the behaviour of individual members of his Government and has had to make choices from the available pool in the House of Representatives and from the appointments he has made in the Senate.

“Obviously, one would expect that the prime minister would have made good-faith appointments based on the calibre of the persons that he has selected. Thereafter, though, their own course of action and behaviour would have to be attributed to the actors themselves. The prime minister has taken an early and decisive action to request Minister Reid’s resignation as the investigations unfold. I doubt if we can ask very much more of a prime minister as head of the Government.”

The public mood is for resignations at the first suggestion of corruption. With our problem-riddled public administration system, I can easily imagine the day when a Government is deliberately brought down by orchestrated accusations of corruption, triggering a string of ministerial resignations and the collapse of a Cabinet and a government. How to balance ministerial responsibility for portfolio failures with the need for stability of government is not exactly a light or simple matter.

The prime minister, no doubt stung by Petrojam, which followed next in the speech, placed right at the front of his Budget Debate presentation a programme of action for the reform of public boards since “poorly run public bodies pose a threat to our economic programme and fiscal certainty”.

Perhaps the prime minister should just send his ministers, public servants, and candidates for board appointments to Sunday or Sabbath School. They may very well meet Ruel Reid there as instructor.

HANDFUL OF SIMPLE PRINCIPLES

Corruption flourishes when power and resources meet in the dark behind closed doors. Reducing corruption to tolerable levels (it can never be completely eliminated) can be accomplished by the application of a handful of simple principles. If we can find the will to do so.

In the first place, operations must be guided by clear and public rules that produce transparency, accountability, and consistency. Controls and checkpoints must be inserted into operational procedures and no operative must have control over more than a few steps in the process. Independent oversight must be built into systems. Power to investigate, prosecute, and punish breaches must be established and fearlessly used. All eyes are turned to the Integrity Commission.

The resignation of one of two senatorial ministers has bowled the Government a constitutional dilemma. The Constitution at Section 69 (3) requires that “no less than two nor more than four of the Ministers selected… shall be persons who are members of the Senate.”

The work to satisfy constitutional requirements need not be long or difficult. There is a bundle of ministries crammed into the superministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, one of which could be pulled out and assigned to a Senator. Reid himself held a triple portfolio, all or part of which can be assigned to a Senator.

Information, as a full portfolio with departments and agencies of Government attached and with a slate of regulatory responsibilities, is crying out for a serious minister who is not the spokesman for the Government, a job which can be left to that eminent spin bowler Robert Morgan in the OPM.

The prime minister likes to sound big, announcing that he is taking a troubled ministry under his control to fix it. Actually, there is no need for the big talk. As I pointed out in commentary elsewhere, any ministry without a minister naturally falls to the supervision of the prime minister, which is why he is the prime minister among ministers, constitutionally in charge of the whole Government.

And as I prognosticated in another place, the prime minister should leave unshuffled the recently shuffled Cabinet and seek a replacement minister for Reid from among the ministers of state, government backbenchers or government senators.

They can’t all be that incompetent or prone to corruption. Reidy stuff happens in politics. The show has to go on.

 

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com