Trevor Munroe | Strengthen accountability: End special treatment for delinquent parliamentarians
On Thursday, May 23, we Jamaicans commemorated 81 years ago, that day when our people led by the workers – unemployed and employed – spoke out, stood up, and said no to injustice. That islandwide protest started the process that led Jamaica to become the first predominantly black country to achieve the milestone of Universal Adult Suffrage, the recognition of workers’ rights, and, ultimately, the establishment of a robust democracy.
Today, that democracy has developed many strengths, none to be taken for granted, all to be defended, lest, without lawful justification, they be eroded, abridged, or taken away. These strengths include:
* Free and fair elections managed by an innovative Electoral Commission and Electoral Office of Jamaica. In February 2016, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) won an election with less than 0.05 per cent separating them from the People’s National Party (PNP). This narrow margin and result was accepted. Not so in many countries, such as very recently in Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in each of which violent protests followed the declaration of election results.
* A freedom of the press is surpassed by only seven of over 190 countries in the world.
* A non-discrimination on grounds of gender, which, in 2015, facilitated women occupying senior management positions to an extent unequalled by any country in the world.
* An Independent Judiciary, demonstrated most recently on April 10, 2019, when our Supreme Court exercised its status as a co-equal branch of Government and declared null and void the NIDS law proposed by the Executive, and passed by the Legislature, a decision accepted by the Executive.
There remain, however, serious shortcomings, which we all must come together to overcome, particularly in respect of equality before the law. This inequality, apparent to the man in the street, was officially acknowledged in the report of the 2007 Jamaica Justice System Reform Task Force, co-chaired by Professor Barry Chevannes and then Chief Justice Hon. Lensley Wolfe. Twelve years later, we have to all redouble our efforts to rid Jamaica of one law for the disadvantaged and powerless and another law for the powerful and connected.
JAILED FOR ACKEE
Recall examples of the rule of law as applied to the disadvantaged and unconnected. On November 25, 2011, the headline in the Jamaica Observer was ‘Man gets three months for stealing GG’s ackee.’ the ackee was valued at J$350. Forward to t he Observer headline on July 7, 2013, another ‘Man gets three months for stealing ackee. The ackee was worth J$200. Forward to February 1, 2016, another Observer headline, another ‘Man gets 45 days for stealing ackees’: This time, eleven and a half dozen ackees. So the rule of law is apparently being applied in those cases.
Is it also being applied in relation to the Integrity Commission Act 2017, and, in particular, Section 41 “time for making and submission of statutory declarations”?
In respect of that section, in his statement to Parliament on February 1, 2017, our prime minister stated, “The importance of Section 41 cannot be overlooked.” In that statement, our prime minister also declared, and I agree, “an effective anti-corruption programme must have provisions whereby persons in leadership positions set the standard of ethics by which we all operate”.
Correspondingly, I add that the standard must be that breaches of law by persons in ‘leadership positions’ must be punished in like manner to persons in non-leadership positions.
Is this the case in relation to leaders in Parliament who breach the law relating to their statutory declarations? And when found guilty, is exemplary punishment applied? Or is it a tap on the wrist?
The Gleaner of Saturday, November 19, 2011, tells us: “MPs fined – found guilty of breaching Parliament Integrity Act ... Four of seven parliamentarians who were hauled before the HWT Resident Magistrate’s Court have been slapped with J$10,000 fines each for breaching the Parliament (Integrity of Members) Act.” Two and a half years earlier, June 2009, another headline: ‘Integrity Act charges dropped against three PNP members’.
Fast-forward to the related Annual Reports of 2013 to 2017. Take Appendix 3 of the 2013 Annual report – 36 parliamentarians were named whose declarations were not finalised as at December 31, 2013. Among these were equal numbers from both sides of Parliament.
Forward to the 2017 report, belatedly laid before the Parliament in February 2019. The then Integrity Commission complains that “this unsatisfactory practice [of incomplete statutory declarations] continues despite reminders sent out advising that supporting documents as at the date of the declaration are expected along with their submissions.”
NO SPECIAL TREATMENT
Yet, what sanctions have been applied under the law over three calendar years starting in 2014, when 16 current and former lawmakers from the two main political parties were reported to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP)? None!
To her credit, DPP Paula Llewellyn admitted: “Our records do not reflect any follow-up being done upon the expiration of the warning notices … This was an oversight by my office, for which I take full responsibility” (Gleaner, May 13, 2019).
Sections 41, 42, and 43 of the Integrity Commission Act 2017 are, in part, designed to reduce the likelihood of such oversights. Under section 42, the newly established director of information and complaints is empowered to request further information in respect of a statutory declaration and to “request the declarant to submit such other information at such time as may be specified in the notice and the declarant shall submit such information within the specified period” (S.42-2).
If the director is not satisfied with the further information, “he shall refer the matter to the Commission for further and necessary action”.
In respect of the eight declarations “examined, but not cleared” in the 2017 Annual Report, including that of the Most Hon. Andrew Holness, should not transparency require that the public be informed as to when was the further information required, and was it provided within the specified period?
And when shall the public expect that the director of Information and complaints, having examined the further information, inform the commission that the statutory declaration has been duly completed and the commission thereafter issue to the parliamentarians concerned confirmation or clearance thereof in writing?
Alternatively, where the director of information and complaints is not satisfied and is of the opinion that an investigation is necessary, how long shall we have to wait before the consequential referral be made “to the commission for further and necessary action?”
The strengthening of our democracy requires each of us to demand no special treatment for the ackee thief; no special treatment for the delinquent parliamentarian.