The prime minister was absolutely correct when he said at the wrap-up of the most recent Budget rituals that theft and other misuse of public funds should never be considered mere “distractions.” He would’ve been equally on the button had the prime minister upbraided not only opposition MP Guy Joseph—for his demonstrated reckless disregard for our nation’s immediate and long-term economic future—but also the Southeast Castries MP’s party leader and Leader of the House Opposition for his own contemptuous dismissal of the government’s recently released Review of Financial Operations of Town, Village and Rural Councils.
Let me be up-front and admit my own ears heard him not. But it has been reported without refutation by at least one section of the media that the former prime minister Stephenson King, reference the cited report, had said he would “not waste time on this.”
In all events, especially when centered on an administration’s management of public funds—and regardless of how obscure or arcane or perfidious the obviously jaundiced might consider such allegations—accuser and accused are both duty-bound to account for their respective stewardships.
It cannot under any circumstances be a waste of time when the day’s government dutifully informs the nation about official matters shrouded in secrecy. And certainly the accused should never be permitted simply to dismissively shrug off suspicious behavior as a waste of their time. To accommodate such convenience would be tantamount to criminal complicity, in itself deserving of close examination.
As I say, the time officials, particularly elected parliamentarians, claim as their own often is not theirs to spend as they please. How can it be when such time is paid for out of the public purse? MPs and other public officers swear on the Bible always to do what they do in the best interests of we the people, their employers. They are by law protected from suspect superiors who would assign them functions inimical to the nation’s future. Written into their terms of reference are the all-important matters of transparency and accountability. I daresay it is of vital importance to a nation’s stability that officials be seen at all times to be carrying out their duties in strict accordance with their contract with the people, commonly referred to as the Constitution of Saint Lucia.
I repeat: it cannot possibly be in the best interests of any nation to dismiss accusations of impropriety in public affairs as make believe and therefore unworthy of discussion. The Saint Lucia Constitution provides tax-funded measures by which to determine whether allegations are valid. Also provided are the consequences of bearing false witness. So who then would say it is not an immeasurable arrogance on the part of officials charged with maladministration simply to say it is not worth their time to reassure the people of their honesty and integrity?
I am reminded at this point of a young man with a psychology degree who recently advised I should stop blaming our leaders for having abandoned us on the edge of the abyss.
“We should blame ourselves,” he said. “We elect these people every five years and almost immediately afterward we start complaining about what we knew all along, that they’re all the same and care only for themselves and their hacks.”
For his part, he said, he was not about to sit in his high chair with his mouth wide open ready to “swallow whatever garbage our leaders dish out on a daily basis.”
And I said: “How about we reword what you just said? How do you feel about the people demanding that our officials be accountable?”
“Well,” said the psychologist, “I’d agree with that?”
And I said: “How do the people guarantee accountability in our environment? As even you have noted, elections do not necessarily do more than place new faces in the House. It seems we keep electing lesser evils that have no respect for the people.”
“Besides,” I went on, “it costs a lot of money to take governments to court, not to mention the length of time involved. More than that, some politicians are demanding that citizens be made to bear court costs when their petitions fail. We have yet to establish a freedom of information law in Saint Lucia. The government holds all the cards.”
He offered no real comeback. “You have a point,” is all he said.
Alas, he didn’t say what he would do in the meantime. Presumably he’ll keep his mouth shut tight until he can no longer resist the daily-dispensed “garbage.” The particular image reminded me of the British philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham’s warning: “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”
I have been trying to make sense of the earlier mentioned government’s report on our councils’ operations over the last five years, at any rate insofar as they relate to the use of funds supplied by the Taiwanese in the time of Ambassador Tom Chou. (It might be instructive to refer to other council reports by George Noone and others!) In the meantime, I need ask the following: Why did this government find it necessary to release its latest report, with its repetitious “it appears,” “as far as we can tell,” “it seems,” “probably” and so on? Was that precedent not a one-way ticket out of Dodge?
Bearing in mind the scores of individuals involved, among them ministers of government, public servants, councilors, contractors and bank officials, how long will it take before a case is ready for a judge and jury? Will the Taiwanese government be required to appear before a commission of inquiry and court? On whose side will its representative stand? After all, Tom Chou is on record expressing over and over his satisfaction with the way the King government disposed of Taiwanese funds.
How much is Saint Lucia prepared to spend on bringing suspects to justice? Lord alone knows what we are already paying retained lawyers to defend us against Jack Grynberg’s breach of contract suit.
Can we expect to hear from the Integrity Commission? Then again, how legal are its operations anyway? When was the last time the commission laid papers before parliament, as required by law? Already, what I’ve read from the government’s reports suggests that for a very long time much has been wrong with our accounting systems. You could say there is little connection between what the law demands and what has been going on in the public service for over fifty years.
Am I suggesting the government should simply forget the councils’ issue? I most certainly am not. Indeed, if we are lucky, perhaps this is the issue that will set useful precedents and standards at long last. If indeed laws were broken, and according to the report several were, then let justice be done—and as quickly as possible. It won’t do yet again to allow things to drag until the statute of limitations renders the case closed.
Now consider, dear reader, the following questions from a curious reader: “Have you ever wondered what the value of the Central Government’s Accumulated Surplus/Deficit is at 31 March 2013 or for 2012 or 2011?
“Is the debt guarantee for Rochamel/Frenwell recorded in the Contingent Liability Financial Statements for the appropriate financial years when the transactions took place? Have the audited accounts for 2005 been submitted to parliament?”
I have no idea how to answer the above. But I’ve often wondered how it was possible for the communications & works ministry, back in the late 80s, to have disposed of over $40 million with no recorded accounting.
I’ve also wondered why no audit director had ever touched on the million dollars that the prime minister John Compton was by his own account “duped” into paying a favored public servant—and whether what passed as the truth of the matter would’ve seen the light of day without the 1995 commission of inquiry chaired by Sir Fred Phillips.
Finally a timely reminder of the following by Sir Louis Blom-Cooper: “From the limited but not unrevealing perspective of the commission of inquiry I have discerned in Saint Lucia a culture of studied indifference or, at the very least, inattention to the practice, even the concept, of public accountability—a cultural climate in which administrative torpor is often the consequence, and malpractices in government, including corruption, can thrive unhampered by detection or, if and when discovered, by disciplinary action . . . Ministers and civil servants should be reminded of the rules relating to public expenditure and those persons appointed to public authorities or government agencies must comply strictly with their remits.”
Moreover: “The suspicion in the public’s mind that the machinery of government is not working, and consequently that corruption is rife, is almost as damaging to the public weal as individual corruption itself. Good governance . . . is the key to the future stability and development in the territories of the Eastern Caribbean.”
Dwight Venner was more succinct. “The problem is not so much money,” he said during a recent “conversation” with local business representatives hosted by the Chamber of Commerce. “The problem is leadership!”
Though I sense problems associated with the attempt, still it is imperative that Kenny Anthony prove both Blom-Cooper and Venner wrong!