“I have nothing to hide. The party of which I am the General Secretary, the PPP, does not benefit from any ill gotten gains,” President Donald Ramotar was quoted as saying at the Private Sector Commission AGM on Thursday. Nevertheless, he did make an acknowledgement that in the government arena, at least, things might not be quite as beyond reproach as that statement would lead people to believe, since he also told his audience, “I won’t stand here and say that there is no corruption in government…” For good measure, he assured everyone that he wanted “to make the work of the government as transparent as possible.”
If he had said all of this six months ago the citizens of Guyana would have listened attentively, but he didn’t; he chose the very week when the governing party of which he is leader had acted in a way that belied his words. On Monday, the PPP/C took advantage of the absence of the AFC member on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament to push through the appointment of 11 members of staff of the Auditor General’s office. Among these was the wife of Minister of Finance Ashni Singh, Mrs Gitanjali Singh. The government and opposition members had previously been divided over the appointments, which had been proposed by Acting Auditor General Deodat Sharma, because most of the staff members involved were not “adequately qualified” – to use APNU’s words – to fill the posts. A particular source of difficulty was the appointment of Mrs Singh as Audit Director, which happens to be the substantive position of Mr Deodat Sharma.
Some members of the public might be wondering how exactly it undermines the President’s reassuring utterances of last Thursday. The answer is firstly, as has been said many times before, reining in official corruption requires rational systems, monitoring institutions which are autonomous, and personnel who are scrupulous and competent. At least the skeleton of a system is in place, and the primary monitoring institution, namely, the Audit Office, has recently become autonomous by being able to draw its financing directly from the Consolidated Fund – which leaves the matter of Audit Office personnel, the appointment of whom (the Auditor General himself excepted) has to be approved by the PAC.
Clearly if the Auditor General’s department were staffed by people who were either directly linked to the government in some way, thereby compromising its independence, or by people who did not have the requisite qualifications for the job, thereby either frustrating or slowing down its work through lack of skills, then it could not perform the functions it is mandated to do. So why then, one wonders, was the government so determined to create a situation whereby the efficient functioning of the Audit Office could potentially be inhibited by the appointment of some under-qualified personnel, and its integrity compromised in the eyes of the public by the elevation of the wife of the Finance Minister to the position of Audit Director?
Now it so happens that Mrs Singh is eminently qualified to fill the post in terms of her professional certification; it is just that she is in a classic conflict of interest situation – an egregious one, as it happens – since she will have to direct the auditing of accounts of entities for which the Ministry of Finance has responsibility. How on earth does President Ramotar think that the public can take him seriously after that? How does he expect anyone to believe that the government is committed to transparency in such circumstances? And why would the administration feel so impelled to convey the impression that they do not want to deal with corruption at any price, if in fact they do? The public is not blind. It will draw its own conclusions.
Which brings us to Mr Deodat Sharma. Following Mr Goolsarran’s departure, he was never promoted to the post of Auditor General for the simple reason that under the law he does not possess the requisite qualifications for the position. As a consequence he has been acting for seven years, which certainly circumscribed his independence of action, for reasons which hardly require explication. After Mrs Singh’s promotion he cannot return to his old post, so is it the government’s intention to try and have him confirmed as Auditor General in defiance of the law? Or do they intend to give him what in PNC days was known as a lateral promotion?
While the governing party is responsible for what happened in the PAC last Monday, the fact that it was allowed to happen can be laid squarely at the feet of the AFC. As in the National Assembly itself, the opposition has a single seat majority on the PAC. It is a difficult situation to manage, but both APNU and the AFC are well aware of how the PPP/C operates, and on this occasion its intentions in relation to appointments in the office of the Auditor General were known, because as indicated above it had been rebuffed in the committee already in relation to that matter. So why those at the highest levels of the AFC did not ensure that their sole member was present for last week’s meeting is a mystery, because they should have known the government would seize the opportunity to push through the appointments. After all, it is no secret that conceding a point is not one of the governing party’s notable traits.
The MP who was guilty of dereliction was Mr Trevor Williams. At an AFC press conference on Wednesday, it was said he was travelling on the Essequibo River at the time the vote took place. He described his late arrival as “unfortunate” and that he “did his best to be there.” All that can be said is that his best was far from good enough. AFC Executive Member David Patterson sought to excuse the default by saying that the appointments were not even on the PAC agenda for the meeting. One can only wonder if he has a realistic grasp of Guyana’s devious political environment, or if he believes a one-seat majority has in and of itself transformed our Machiavellean political world. If he does, then he shouldn’t be in politics here.
The truth is Mr Williams should not have been out on the Essequibo River at all on Monday – or on Sunday either for that matter. He was voted in by the AFC constituency to do a job, which in his case includes turning up to PAC meetings. Given the fact that he works for Digicel, it is difficult to believe that he was not able to inform anyone he might not arrive in time, but even if he could not, did he tell the AFC leadership before he left that he was going out of town, and if not, why not?
What might give him some small excuse is if the leadership never impressed on him the importance of his presence at the meeting. That said, however, anyone who does not understand the significance of the work of the PAC and needs to have it explained to him, should not be sitting on the committee at all. In addition, Mr Ramjattan it must be presumed, appears not to have checked up on the whereabouts of his party member prior to Monday to ensure that he would be present, because had he done so he would have been aware that Mr Williams was not in the city and he could have alerted the Chairman of the PAC, Mr Carl Greenidge to that fact. Since the AFC has been lecturing the populus on the question of holding people in government responsible for their actions, it behoves them now to replace Mr Williams on the PAC with a member who has a greater sense of duty in relation to the electorate.
This brings us back to the matter of co-ordination between the two opposition parties. Despite Mr Greenidge’s assurances in a letter to Stabroek News last week, one still does not have the impression that there is some formal structure in place for calibrating positions between the two opposition parties, and agreeing on strategy. Did the leadership of both parties, for example, discuss the necessity for all their PAC members to be aware of the need to attend meetings at this time and undertake to ensure that they were? Have they ever agreed, for example, that each of their parties should delegate someone to check up on members the day before important meetings of any kind to ensure their presence, and warn the other side if anyone will be unavoidably absent?
Finally, the nation still awaits the appointment of an Auditor General, who if he or she is competent and unencumbered by conflict of interest impediments, could still make a difference in the Audit Office, because of the powers which go with the post. However, the PAC has no say in this. The Auditor-General is appointed by the President acting in accordance with the advice of the Public Service Commission.