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Editorial | The politics of patronage breeds corruption

Published:Friday | July 10, 2020 | 12:14 AM

Implicit in Seymour Panton’s admonition against parliamentarians being conduits for private philanthropy is a call for a debate on what ought to be the role of members of parliament (MPs) in a politics that thrives on patronage.

In a way, too, Justice Panton’s disquisition is an invitation for revisiting the concern police chief Antony Anderson expressed two years ago: of public institutions, like his own, cosying up to private benefactors, potentially impacting negatively on the fairness, or the perception thereof, with which they do their jobs.

It is a conversation that unfortunately, Commissioner Anderson never extended. Its reprise, however, is timely, given the imminence of general elections and the ongoing debate about the state of corruption in the island, which is the context in which Justice Panton, a retired president of the Court of Appeal and current chairman of the Integrity Commission (IC), raised the issue.

It is a presumption of Jamaica’s political arrangements that whatever else they may be, a major part of the responsibilities of legislators is to directly deliver or distribute benefits to their constituents. Indeed, the State legitimises this conception of the MP with the so-called Constituency Development Fund (CDF), a pork barrel of sorts, from which each of the House’s 63 members is allocated J$20 million, to be ladled in dollops of patronage to voters. MPs tend to supplement the State’s allocation by raising money from private donors.


Two issues arise here. First, unlike the reporting requirements of the new campaign-financing law during the specified campaign period, there is no accounting for the cash received from private donors. In this murky environment, there is the possibility for politicians to raise private money to finance more than the needs of their constituents or their election campaigns. Who knows what extra money might be used for.

The second and related factor is the danger of MPs, especially in the absence of transparency, becoming beholden to donors and what they might demand for their support.

But even in conditions of openness, this concern is still shared by Justice Panton and, presumably – given that the position found its way into an official report of the IC – his fellow commissioners. Arguing that the integrity law wasn’t intended to deal only with public officials, Justice Panton said that MPs shouldn’t be “the vehicle” for the philanthropy of private individuals or corporations.

“There should be no question of giving money to a parliamentarian to distribute to constituents,” he wrote. “That is unacceptable, notwithstanding the goodness and generous spirit of the donor. A philanthropist should do the distribution himself or herself or use the services of established charitable bodies … .”

Echoing another position long articulated by this newspaper, Justice Panton said: “Parliamentarians are not supposed to be engaged in the distribution of gifts, scarce resources, or spoils. Parliamentarians are to devise policies for the improvement of the lives of their constituents and their communities and to make representations on their behalf to that effect.”


This, in other words, is a call for the mutual liberation of political representation: the extrication of the MP from the enforced role of community benefactor; and his/her constituents from a presumed and obligatory mendicancy; and both from the potential control of the overlord patron, whose return for the investment may be the delivery to Jamaica of the best democracy his/her money can buy – ultimately for himself/herself and cronies. At the very least, the purchaser may seek procurement of special and differential treatment from the agencies of the State.

It was a danger clearly understood by Commissioner Anderson when he came to office. At the time, he declared: “If there is one organisation that should not be funded, except through the public purse, it should be the police force.”

The danger of the constabulary receiving private gifts or donations to fund its operations, he contended, is the likelihood of raising in the giver an expectation of favours. On the part of the police, it is the possibility of self-imposed restraint and “creating the mechanism for two-tiered” policing. That is, one standard of policing for ordinary folks and another for those who paid the bills.

These are real issues that have created the kinds of social, political life and economic distortions in which corruption thrives and prevented the consistent pursuance of rational policies upon which sustained economic growth and development rest. They should be, we insist, central in the campaign debate as a precursor to overturning of a corrosive culture.