Editorial | Why the PM should explain
Hopefully, Prime Minister Andrew Holness was able to meet the Integrity Commission’s (IC) deadline for providing the requested additional information about his wealth declarations, and that the commission will soon be able to certify his filings.
In the meantime, it would cause no harm, and boost public confidence, if Mr Holness explained what concerns the IC has had with his last two declarations. He would, on the face of it, break no law in doing so.
Under Jamaica’s Integrity Commission Act, the island’s 84 parliamentarians (63 members of the House; 21 in the Senate) and all other public officials who earn J$3.5 million or more must annually file statements of their income, assets and liabilities. Summaries of the prime minister’s and the leader of the Opposition’s have, by law, to be published.
However, in the case of Mr Holness, the IC has not done so for his 2021 and 2022 financial statements. The commission said this year that it was not able to certify the prime minister’s declarations. It, however, offered no further explanation, apparently believing itself constrained by Section 53 (3) of the act that prevents it from commenting on matters being investigated until the investigations have been completed and reports on them have been tabled in Parliament.
Last week, Mr Holness admitted his unease with the failure to certify his latest filings, disclosing that the commission has asked him – apparently more than once – to provide additional information.
“I have provided answers, and they have written to me again,” Mr Holness said. “I am in the process of providing those answers.”
The prime minister expected to fulfil the request by last weekend.
PUBLIC INTO CONFIDENCE
If the matter is not settled within a fortnight, Mr Holness should take the public into his confidence, providing a clear explanation of the broad issues – though not necessarily the minutiae – over which he and the IC are at odds.
As we indicated in April when we first suggested this course of action to the prime minister, The Gleaner does not do so out of some prurient wish to promote tittle-tattle or for the voyeuristic to be able to stick their noses in the Holness’ business.
But neither does the prime minister (PM) have the luxury of ignoring, as some have advised he should, the discussions that swirl around him, writing them off as the rants and trollings of his partisan rivals.
There may, indeed, be some of that. But the requirement that leaders file wealth declarations – and that those of the holders of the two top constitutional offices be subject to public disclosure – is of sound logic. The aim is for the public to have confidence in the people they entrust with high office. It is a guardrail against corruption.
There must be strong technical reasons why the IC has not been able to certify Mr Holness’ declarations, and perhaps equally good ones why the PM has thus far been unable to satisfy its demands. But the longer the issue hangs about without explanation or resolution – especially given the PM’s suggestion that nothing untoward is involved – the more fodder it provides for creators of mischief, and for the erosion of confidence in the country’s leadership. Which is bad for Jamaica’s democracy.
It is moot whether Mr Holness would be in breach of law if he offered a substantial explanation of the issue, notwithstanding the law’s imposition of silence on the IC “or any other person in relation to the initiation or conduct” of an investigation by the commission.
It seems, on the face of it, preposterous if the subject of an investigation could not himself speak about it, given that the declared intention of the so-called ‘gag clause’ was to protect subjects of investigations not from themselves, but supposedly from reputationally damaging, premature declarations by others. In that regard, gagging the subject of the investigation is a perverse act which Parliament could not have intended.
In any event, in the context of the legislation, and his public remarks on the matter, Mr Holness is not the subject of an investigation within the meaning of the law. Rather, his declarations are still at the stage of examination. At this time he is the subject of follow-up questioning, in accordance with Section 42 (2) of the Integrity Commission Act, which says: “Where, upon examination of a statutory declaration, the Director of Information and Complaints is of the opinion that further information is required in respect of a statutory declaration, he may by notice in writing required the declarant to submit such other information at such time as may be specified in the notice, and the declarant shall submit such information in the specified time.” It is when the director of information and complaints determines there may be more to deficiencies in filings than mistakes and errors that he may request an investigation. Which is not Mr Holness’ current status.
The prime minister, however, should go beyond the existing situation and say what the stumbling blocks are. He may just blunt the snarkiness surrounding the issues, about which his supporters complain.