Wed | Jun 3, 2020

Jamaica's crisis of governance, leadership

Published:Friday | August 20, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Lenice Barnett, one of several public-sector bosses separated from their jobs under the Bruce Golding administration. - File

I did write a column last week. Here, more or less, is how it ended: "The word 'hypocrite' did not exist in Jesus' time, but the Bible's chroniclers use it in Matthew 7:5: 'Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye'. Its meaning, roughly translated, expresses defiance of the 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you' rule: apply the same 'morality' to oneself as to others. This admonition is the more powerful, indeed binding, for those who hold power over the lives and life chances of others!"

You can readily guess both whose action the words addressed and the column's subject. It discussed the abrupt firing of the Students' Loan Bureau (SLB) boss amid innuendo, or character assassination. My editor is good; having received the submission and noted breaking news, she enquired whether I wished to amend the column. With insufficient time, I asked her simply to pull it.

Reflecting, I thought I should nevertheless share some of the ideas with readers. The issues relate to Jamaica's constant, apparently intractable problems continuing into the 21st century. A friend asked me about what he determines to be the current Jamaican pattern of terminating government employees upon flimsy or even trumped-up charges; allegations seemingly far-fetched or never substantiated. I asked what he meant.

He quoted the online Gleaner: "Shaw axes SLB boss." Lenice Barnett has been executive director of the Students' Loan Bureau for 14 years. Her tenure, The Gleaner noted "as head of the SLB came to a sudden and dramatic end yesterday when she was fired by Finance Minister Audley Shaw."

So I began with the saying from cooler climes: 'two swallows don't a summer make', or don't generalise from too few experiences.

Statisticians say 'you don't have sufficient observations for strong, robust conclusions'. I wondered if he was mistaking two swallows for summer.

I went into personal memory capture mode and unearthed the following:

Put aside variegated rationales for non-extradition and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, etc, we do have terminations: Public Service Commission, financial secretary, Bank of Jamaica governor, Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica boss, Child Development Agency boss, and now comes the SLB boss.

Hot potato

Purely from memory, there might yet be more, I thought.

This latest firing, put bluntly, follows uncannily and precipitously close to politically embarrassing ideas; expressions of an experienced professional, surrounding govern-ment policy contemplated or in the works: increase in tuition fees for tertiary students. Is this a hot potato or what?

Government's track record in handling similar issues guided my thinking.

The real question is, can this or other firing decisions be political payback, even intimidation by example: top cock crowing, flipping and actually using its feet with the sharp spurs?

Elections have consequences. They must. After all, government changes as the people dictate - at least, so we believe.

The people have spoken and policies must be implemented to fulfil the platform on which the new administration was elected. But are there rules, norms that govern how change is to proceed? If these are consistently breached, what consequences for governance follow?

Checking The Gleaner, the rationale for the minister of finance's action left me shocked. He gave no justification.

It was left to state minister, Senator Arthur Williams, to offer the rationale. It was like a Christmas Day turkey stuffed with indigestible innuendo.

"We found," the state minister said, "a number of serious systemic and governance issues which affected the operation of the SLB."

Further, "some personal issues surrounding Barnett and questions regarding abuse of the motor-vehicle policy also impacted on the decision," he told The Gleaner. These were among the "troubling issues" unearthed by an audit completed two weeks before.

This was terribly bad ministerial communication, especially consi-dering allegations that surfaced in the newspapers last week Thursday, becoming common news through later audit report leaks. What are these?

"The ED draws zero net salaries for most pay periods and has obtained inappropriate, if not illegal, approval from the board and the Ministry of Finance to augment her pay through payments of gratuity on a monthly basis, implementation of unapproved monetary incentive schemes and access to a loan ... without SLB management know-ledge," reported The Gleaner of August 12.

Furthermore, although an automobile was purchased for the ED, she used her personal vehicle, appropriating upkeep from the bureau; J$264,117,633.69 was placed as an investment with Capital & Credit Securities, an entity ultimately owned by Capital & Credit Financial Group, of which SLB board Chairman Andrew Cocking is deputy group president.

Grave charges

These are grave charges, not ones our Ministry of Finance should tarry in excess of two weeks to address.

The quoted sections of the audit report suggest some of these irregularities were condoned by the ministry; presumably the minister knew, and if not, ought to have known.

If the ED was initially employed to the Bank of Jamaica and assigned to the SLB, she would have had mortgage loan funding at peppercorn interest rates like 2 or 3 per cent.

She would have been a participant in a pension scheme with contributions invested monthly. There would have been other soft loan possibilities attached to her BOJ position.

It would be entirely reasonable, therefore, for the minister to vary her contract so that gratuity was paid monthly, the rationale being that merely to keep up with inflation she should have the option of investing in a manner as to produce a stream of pension income similar to the one that would have obtained had she not been in a job with a statutory corporation as opposed to the BOJ.

But the overriding issue remains two-fold: in a sensi-tive position such as this one, the evi-dent structural financial problems of the ED had to be addressed.

Did the Ministry of Finance plan to work with her to sort them out, that is, until she spoke out of turn? And second, why invest such a large allocation of public funds with the institution that the board chairman represents at such a high level?

So, while I told my friend that two swallows don't a summer make, I have to say Jamaicans well know: Two circling 'John Crow inna de sky seh carrion tink a groun'.

Good governance requires rules, precedent and a sense of predictability. Today, we seem too often to be winging it, with the undertones of pure political expedience.

More important, consider this: Martin Luther King Jr 'had a dream'. He didn't 'have a plan to be a driva'. His grounding at the moral level ultimately made thousands follow him; 25 per cent of the Mall gathering was white.

Are we bungling not only details of governance but also missing entirely the need for leadership the population can buy into because of an obvious link, if not to high morality, then, at least, to good sense?