Mon | Sep 26, 2022

Gordon Robinson | Why would MPs want a change?

Published:Sunday | August 14, 2022 | 12:09 AM
Recently Government spent over $43 million ($18.2 million directly from the Consolidated Fund) on a Cabinet member’s bid to become Commonwealth Secretary General. The bid itself isn’t problematic in my view but an account of the cost should be automati
Recently Government spent over $43 million ($18.2 million directly from the Consolidated Fund) on a Cabinet member’s bid to become Commonwealth Secretary General. The bid itself isn’t problematic in my view but an account of the cost should be automatic.

There’s real danger that the Government’s official constitutional reform agenda is intended to result in no change.

Why should parliamentarians support change? As our governance system now stands, they can prioritise political party interests in Parliament; ensure that the engine of government is controlled by party hacks, supporters, and cronies; spend taxpayers’ money willy nilly; and avoid any personal consequence for any governance misconduct or malfeasance.

How come? To begin with, Jamaican governments aren’t elected. They aren’t even vetted by the people’s parliamentary representatives on the people’s behalf. An electorate, conditioned over decades to swallow Westminster governance whole, votes (once every five years) for a constituency representative ALONE. About 3,000 Jamaican “party delegates”, or 0.1 per cent of the population, have long ago decided who, from the political party winning the majority of seats via this scatter-shot voting, will become prime minister.

Can it get any worse? Sure it can. In 1967, this rotten system tricked voters into believing they had elected Donald Sangster as PM. He died shortly after, and 32 Jamaican MPs selected Hugh Shearer as PM for the rest of us. In 1989, Jamaicans “elected” Michael Manley. By 1992, PNP delegates selected P.J. Patterson instead. In 2002, Jamaicans “elected” P.J. Patterson, but subsequently, PNP delegates selected Portia Simpson-Miller. In 2007, Jamaicans “elected” Bruce Golding but before the next election, 32 JLP MPs forced Andrew Holness upon us.

The PM, chosen by 0.1 per cent (or less) of the population in a caricature of anti-democracy, wields absolute power; appoints a Cabinet from MPs who should instead be representing us by overseeing government; appoints 13 of 21 senators; and has de facto veto power over every executive appointment. Jamaicans’ first and last chance to pretend to elect a government is their vote for MP. Then MPs vie for Cabinet positions at the whim of an unelected PM.

In that reality, the party’s needs are always given priority over constituents’ needs. Government MPs bawl about lack of resources. Opposition MPs say vote my party in power and we’ll send more resources your way.

In the midst of this mercenary manipulation of the electorate, we have a governance maze involving central and local government networks that include hundreds of political “representatives” with apparently overlapping responsibilities. Lines of responsibility and accountability are accordingly blurred, and corruption spreads like COVID.

Why would MPs want a change?

Not one single political appointment is presented to putative peoples’ representatives for public vetting. Under the current system, it wouldn’t matter. Cabinet also sits in Parliament. So who would be vetting whom?

Once a political party is first past the electoral post, it controls every aspect of national life. The independent judiciary is too expensive to access and too backlogged to be effective, while media, whose task is to force transparency, is too vulnerable to vested interests and political influence.

Why would MPs want a change?

Despite our Constitution limiting MPs’ jobs to “make laws for the peace and good government of Jamaica” (Section 48) , the incestuous nature of Parliament, government and “municipal corporations” has led to MPs having their hands on and spending (or influencing the spending of) taxpayers’ dollars on all sorts of harum-scarum schemes without having to account to anyone. The Office of the Auditor General gives yeoman’s service but can’t monitor all expenditure or any expenditure in any semblance of real time.

If the system were changed so that spending was authorised by Parliament but implemented by a separate executive within Money Bills’ parameters while Parliament retained concurrent oversight powers, we’d see a lessening of the carefree attitude towards spending our money. A Parliament accountable to constituents only would be more likely to take effective action, including referral to the DPP/Integrity Commission if impropriety is suspected.

DOUBLE-CONTRACTED

Recently, Government spent over $43 million ($18.2 million directly from the Consolidated Fund) on a Cabinet member’s bid to become Commonwealth secretary general. The bid itself isn’t problematic in my view, but an account of the cost should be automatic. Gleaner reported (August 9):

[Government] said that the $18.2 million covered expenses related to air and ground transportation, COVID-19 tests, meals, accommodation, and public relations and communications.”

How much was spent on “public relations and communications”? Who or what got that contract and how was the contractor procured? I focus on this line item because, in the following paragraph, Gleaner reported:

“Undisclosed Jamaican private funders donated approximately $15 million for public relations and thought-leadership services from international marketing firm Finn Partners.”

So we double-contracted “public relations” and created a new industry called “thought-leadership services”. Who was teaching whom to think?

Two months previously, on June 6, OPM Minister (without Portfolio) Robert Morgan issued the following press release:

“Government has nominated Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Kamina Johnson Smith as Jamaica’s candidate for the post of Commonwealth Secretary-General”.

Jamaica’s candidate? Was the Baroness England’s or Dominica’s candidate? The release quoted Johnson-Smith:

As I previously advised publicly, travel costs are being met through the budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other support is being provided by the Office of the Prime Minister. Furthermore, no financing has been provided by any other Government.”

Not. A. Word. In. English. About. Corporate. Donors! No mention in passing of Finn Partners.

Back to the release:

“According to Minister Johnson-Smith, ‘There are no secrets around the financing of this campaign. We remain fully committed to transparency’.”

As Noah sarcastically replied to a disembodied voice claiming to be God: “Right!”

ON THAT SAME DAY, Finn Partners, in a filing under the United States Foreign Agents Registration Act, named Kamina Johnson-Smith as the principal in relation to the firm’s work for which it was paid US$99,000.00 (approximately J$15 million).

Finn’s filing asserted that it had been retained to provide media relations, strategic counsel, media monitoring, media relations, thought leadership as well as content strategy and development. So why was Government separately paying for “public relations and communications”?

It took Government TWO MORE MONTHS to disclose the cost (including the Finn Partners retainer of which Government did a Pontius Pilate) in a late-night release. The donors’ and paid contractors’ identities are still secret. Independent thinkers need this information to assess the likelihood of duplication of services or quid pro quo before they can accept that the money was “well spent”.

Failure to disclose these details is the antithesis of transparency and violates the spirit of Jamaica’s Campaign Financing Laws even though this campaign wasn’t local. What’s the difference? If she was “Jamaica’s candidate” why can’t Jamaica know who paid for her campaign. And who was paid?

SEPARATION OF POWERS 101

In an unrelated story, save for the common thread of unmonitored expenditure, The Gleaner estimated that $15 million was spent to buy 60 bottles of rum as gifts to foreigners as part of Jamaica 60 “celebrations”.

And don’t get me started on the illegal (in my opinion) Constituency Development Fund (CDF) that purports to permit MPs to spend taxpayers’ money in constituencies as they like, subject to very non-transparent “controls” from (guess where) OPM!

From as far back as October 2012 (Flush the Slush), I wrote that the CDF is unconstitutional because it isn’t spent based on a warrant for “specified public services” in the Appropriations Act.

Late last week, the Kenyan Supreme Court declared Kenya’s eerily similar CDF unconstitutional because “a fund directed at service-delivery mandate can only be constitutionally complaint if structured in a manner that does not entangle members of legislative bodies in the discharge of the service-delivery mandate, however symbolic.” Separation of Powers 101!

Government spending by MPs (using whatever device) comes without restraint or accountability.

Why would MPs want a change?

So I wasn’t surprised to hear Marlene Malahoo-Forte say she expects Jamaica to go for a non-executive president. This isn’t change. This is illusion created to obstruct change by swapping white queen for black “President”, both unelected and useless for governance purposes. The plan is to keep Government and the people as disconnected as possible in order to continue governing in the interest of political parties.

If there was any desire to improve Jamaicans’ lot or to inspire voter-apathy decline, we would ensure that all party members voted for party leader; the electorate voted directly for president/PM and separately for MPs/senators; a Cabinet nominated from outside of Parliament and vetted by MPs/senators before appointment; and strict separation of MPs from the public purse together with job descriptions, including oversight of government spending.

Now that would be, like, twenty lawyers at the bottom of the sea, a good start. But it would mean too much actual responsibility and accountability. We can’t have THAT. How would “di runnings” work?

Why would MPs want a change?

Think on these things. Because eventually, we get what we ask for which, also, is usually what we deserve.

Peace and love!

Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.