Sun | Sep 19, 2021

Trevor Munroe | Governance 2020: Bridging or widening the trust deficit?

Published:Sunday | December 20, 2020 | 12:15 AM

Prime Minister Andrew Holness (front row second from left) with sworn in ministers (not present are Minister of Finance Nigel Clarke and Minister of Health Christoper Tufton) after the Swearing in Ceremony of cabinet Ministers and attorney general on Sept
Prime Minister Andrew Holness (front row second from left) with sworn in ministers (not present are Minister of Finance Nigel Clarke and Minister of Health Christoper Tufton) after the Swearing in Ceremony of cabinet Ministers and attorney general on September 13 at Kings House in St Andrew.
Professor Trevor Munroe, executive director at the National Integrity Action.
Professor Trevor Munroe, executive director at the National Integrity Action.
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In 2020, the percentage of the Jamaican electorate willing to participate in elections fell to its lowest in over 70 years. At the same time, the proportion of our people prepared to justify a military takeover to deal with high crime and corruption reached its highest point [LAPOP Pulse of Democracy 2019].

Across the planet, according to a Cambridge University Study, 2019 represented “the highest level of democratic discontent on record”. We in Jamaica were therefore not alone. Reason: across the globe there was a “growing sense of inequity and unfairness in the system” [Edelman Trust]. Here at home, our prime minister has not been unaware of this. Four and a half years ago, PM Holness acknowledged in his inaugural speech, “significant numbers of Jamaicans have lost hope in our system … there is only so much trust that statements can buy … Jamaican people now want to see action in building trust… the actualising of our commitments.”

In 2019, 49 per cent of the Jamaican people felt that government was not doing enough to stem corruption and at the same time, an overwhelming Parliamentary majority was won by the Jamaica Labour Party with 21 per cent support from the registered electorate. The Opposition People’s National Party registered on 16 per cent support from the electorate.

Not surprisingly, therefore, at his swearing in on September 7, the prime minister repeated his commitment “to build public trust” as he again acknowledged that “a large number of Jamaicans are not satisfied with the integrity … of their state and government”. How then are the prime minister, the government and we the people ensuring the “actualising of commitments”?

POSITIVE SIDE

On the positive side, action has been or is being taken to: -

1. Negotiate with social partners and agree a National Consensus on combating crime, violence and corruption, signed on August 3, 2020.

2. Develop a largely appropriate response in the health, education and financial sectors to managing the COVID 19 pandemic and its economic fallout.

3. Plan economic and social recovery in a relatively transparent and largely consultative manner.

4. Comply with the order of the Supreme Court, fulfil the commitment to rid the NIDS Act of infringements of our democratic rights, and return the Bill to Parliament for a more consultative process.

5. Ensure that each appointed minister will participate in a “sensitisation programme … established by the Integrity Commission to increase their understanding of the Anti-Corruption legislative framework to ensure that they are seized of their duties … .”

At the same time, and moving in the opposite direction, 2020 has been witnessing a number of actions undermining the commitment to build trust: -

1. The weakening of parliamentary oversight of the executive by reversing the 13-year-old “Golding Convention” that Parliamentary sessional committees be chaired by members of the opposition, despite representations from a broad range of civic organisations, including National Integrity Action (NIA).

2. The reversal of the decision of the National Environmental Planning Agency (NEPA) to refuse a permit for mining in the Dry Harbour Mountain area and the granting of approval, albeit with conditions, in a manner which threatens the constitutional rights of Jamaicans to “enjoy a healthy and productive environment, free from the threat of injury or damage from environmental abuse and degradation of the ecological heritage [Section 13(3)(1), Jamaica Constitution.]

3. The failure to fulfil two important commitments under the National Consensus Agreement due to be delivered by the end of December 2020. These are to complete the regulations to make the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency fully independent, and to pass through Parliament, new regulations under the Public Bodies Management and Accountability Act. This latter, introduced in Parliament by the Minister of Finance, aims to reduce the extent of nepotism and cronyism and enhance merit-based selection of the boards of public bodies, thereby facilitating less irregularity in the governance of billions of dollars of public funds.

4. The disgraceful threatening of whistle-blower employees at the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission for reporting irregularities in the use of taxpayers’ money. The use of the Official Secrets Act (1911) as a tool of intimidation, dramatises the failure of the Parliament to fulfil its commitment made in 2011 to repeal this colonial law, as well as negligence in not implementing the recommendation to strengthen the Protected Disclosures Act.

5. Unacceptable sluggishness in acting to rectify irregularities in the award of billions of dollars of contracts and shortfalls in quality control systems disclosed by performance reports of the Auditor General in relation to the road infrastructure works, carried out by the National Works Agency, Rural Agricultural Development Authority, the St Catherine Municipal Corporation and the Kingston and St Andrew Municipal Corporation.

REBUILD TRUST

Not only the government and public bodies, but we the citizens need to do far more to ensure commitments made are commitments kept and, thereby, help to rebuild trust in our institutions. Happily, members of our community are setting an example and showing how this can be done. Over 400 farmers and ex-workers in Golden Grove, St Thomas were served notices to vacate land by the end of July 2020 – which they had been promised would be leased to them. The farmers came together and decided not to accept this breached promise and to stand up for their rights. They spoke out, contacted the media, called on organisations – including NIA – to stand with them. NIA made representations on their behalf, with the Office of the Public Defender (OPD). The OPD fulfilled its mandate, held discussions with the Sugar Company of Jamaica (SCJ) alongside the farmers, to which the SCJ responded positively. Today, the notices to vacate are being converted into leaseholds for the farmers to over 1,000 acres of land to which they had a just claim.

Persons of integrity in the Government, in the Opposition, in anti-corruption institutions, in public bodies, in the private sector, the Church, civil society and communities across our country, should also utter not just words, but take action to ensure fulfilment of commitments to uphold fair play and justice.

- Professor Trevor Munroe CD, DPhil (Oxford), is principal director, National Integrity Action. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com