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Editorial | Parties must robustly vet candidates

Published:Friday | July 12, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Dr Horace Chang, the general secretary of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), may not have the final say on who represents the JLP in an election, but we suspect he’s not only influential in such decisions, but has a good handle on the party’s criteria for candidate selection.

So, when Dr Chang says that Ruel Reid is unlikely to be a JLP standard-bearer in the next general election, due in 2021, we take him seriously.

Fired by Prime Minister Andrew Holness in February, Mr Reid is the former education minister who is at the centre of a criminal investigation, purportedly involving serious fraud at his old ministry and some of its agencies and institutions, including the Caribbean Maritime University, whose head, Professor Fritz Pinnock, recently went on a leave of absence to facilitate the probe. The specific allegations against Mr Reid are not known, but what has emerged in hearings in parliamentary committees, as elsewhere, suggests that he is accused of engaging in conspiracies to use public office for private gain, as well as other misdemeanours.

While Mr Reid, at the time of his downfall, was a member of the Senate, he had hoped, at the next general election, to represent the JLP in the constituency of North West St Ann.

But according to Dr Chang, the JLP candidate selection committee recently “reaffirmed our commitment to certain ethical and fiduciary standards for our candidates because we are now in the process of settling candidates … by November”.

We agree with Dr Chang. And not because we have concluded that Mr Reid is guilty, which, in the absence of an airing of the evidence in a court of law, we have no way of knowing. Rather, moral and ethical actions are sometimes not founded purely in legal considerations and what is provable in court, but a standard that society establishes for what is decent and how it expects the citizenry to abide by these codes.

There is a greater obligation on leaders to abide by these mores, and the burden is even greater in a society such as Jamaica’s, where trust of those in authority is low, and upwards of 80 per cent of the citizenry believe that public officials are corrupt.

Political parties, which enjoy among the lowest levels of public trust, therefore have a responsibility to demonstrate that the people they offer for public office deserve our confidence and, insofar as possible, are beyond reproach and not encased in the stench of scandal. Mr Reid, unfortunately, does not, at this time, pass that test.

Is Reid the only one?

But we wonder if Mr Reid is the only person among the JLP’s prospective candidates who might have fallen afoul of the selection committee’s “ethical and fiduciary standards”.

Many people will, for instance, question where, if he intends to stand in the next election, Andrew Wheatley belongs in all of this.

Dr Wheatley was the minister of science, energy and technology who was forced out of the Cabinet over several scandals at numerous agencies in his portfolio, including allegations of mismanagement, cronyism and reckless spending at the Petrojam oil refinery. Amid the supping at the trough, Petrojam spent US$1,000 on a cake at a surprise party for Dr Wheatley.

We don’t know that the ex-minister is under criminal investigation, but there is sufficient information in the public domain for people to question his judgement and absence of fiduciary responsibility and duty of care at the agencies in his portfolio.

With the JLP having, as Dr Chang suggests, established an ethical framework for its candidates, we hope that the People’s National Party (PNP) is on a similar road and that all its candidates and caretakers have undergone robust invigilation.

Several years ago, that party established an integrity committee to vet candidates, but our sense is that its processes, if they were engaged, were less than intense. The PNP and its leader, Dr Peter Phillips, have been aggressive in their accusation of corruption against the Government. They can’t expect to escape scrutiny.