Transparency and accountability.” That was the clarion call of the Kenny Anthony-led Labour Party in the run-up to the 1997 general election. The party promised to usher in a new political reality of open governance which was earnestly by the people, of the people, and for the people. In the strategic forefront was publisher and so-called “Compton scourge” Rick Wayne, whose constant use of the phrase turned it into a mantra, not unlike his more recent “not a word, not a word, not a word.” The appeal of this message undoubtedly contributed much to the unprecedented thrashing suffered by the UWP in 1997, when the SLP took 16 of the 17 seats in contention. But alas, Dr. Frankenstein was destined to be destroyed by the monster he created: when Wayne and two senators did not support a $4 million loan guarantee for the owners of a bankrupt local airline – well known party supporters – they suffered the SLP penalty for disloyalty to de party. As would later happen to Sarah Flood-Beaubrun, the senators were banished!
Successive SLP administrations would venture further and further away from the wicked and cruel fraud that was the promise of 1997. There were overt attempts at silencing the media, such as the enactment of Section 361 (famously repealed under relentless pressure from a particular local newspaper) that prescribed imprisonment for offending journalists. Then there were the threats of libel suits against Newsspin’s Timothy Poleon by a government senator.
The current Allen Chastanet-led UWP administration rose to power on a wave of similar assurances. A party not particularly known for vitality in opposition was uncharacteristically unrelenting in its insistence on transparency and accountability from the then incumbent SLP administration. They held rousing public meetings and protests, and addressed the media at every turn, seeking redress for what they determined mismanagement, and promised to uphold the ideals of transparency and accountability. They would supplant the SLP administration on 6 June, 2016. Will they live up to their transparency promise? The question is perhaps premature, for they have not sought to enact any legislation akin to section 361, nor threatened libel litigation against media personnel. However, the existence of broad legislation prohibiting the leaking of information on the activities of government by officials sworn to secrecy, to my mind flies in the face of transparency and accountability.
Recently the Minister for Infrastructure, Ports, Energy and Labour described the latest leak as “political mischief” and promised those responsible would face the “full brunt of the law” if uncovered. While the leaking of governmental documents is in contravention of the Public Service Act, I remain in sympathy with those who leak official documents in the best interests of good governance. You cannot claim transparency on one hand and on the other seek to conceal (by omission or otherwise) your activities in government from the very people you govern. Moreover, true accountability therefore becomes impossible because it is secondary to transparency.
We’re not talking about state secrets here. The whistleblowers are not disclosing the identities and locations of police informants. The information typically leaked doesn’t endanger national security by revealing the names of covert operatives. What are leaked are the day to day operations of government. Are we not entitled to this information? Should we not know how our money is being spent? This isn’t a theocracy in which the responsibility for governance is all but devolved to some infallible omniscient deity. Nor is this an autocracy in which absolute power resides in the hands of a select few whose decisions are not subject to legal constraints nor the mechanisms of popular control.
Politician after politician, no matter the hue – all have used promises of transparency and accountability to seduce us. Aphrodisiacs specially designed to raise our hopes and push our scepticism to the side just before we are screwed, often oblivious to the violation until we awake – diminished and ashamed. They all claim the mantle of open and honest governance but resist it in practice.
Transparency and accountability are the pillars of good governance. Formal mechanisms of transparency such as a freedom of information act (FOIA) are necessary to encourage elected official and technocrats to act in the public interest, and laws need to be enacted to make them accountable when it appears they are not.