Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar recently sacked her Minister of the People and Social Development Dr Glenn Ramdharsingh for his inappropriate behaviour towards an attendant on a Caribbean Airlines flight. Despite the mounting criticisms against her administration, this move demonstrated that persons serving in her government are still expected to answer for their decisions and actions.
Dr Ramdharsingh apologised for his actions and in the face of mounting public pressure for him to go, he was fired. He must have forgotten, or it probably never crossed his mind, that his appointment to public office did not come with a licence to violate people, in this case, a young flight attendant who said that he touched her inappropriately.
In Guyana, we are no strangers to ministers crossing the lines of propriety. There are frequent reports of misconduct in public office and we are reminded ever so often of the excesses that come from being overly imbued with power and zero accountability.
Recall the case last year of the gold miner Andrew John Stone, who was locked up overnight at a police station at Parika apparently at the behest of Transport Minister Robeson Benn. What was his crime? Stone apparently told the minister that the PPP/C would lose the next general elections for neglecting its own people. Later, while attempting to board a boat out of the area, he was intercepted by two uniformed police officers in the company of the minister, who is reported to have ordered his incarceration.
Maybe it’s a lack of resources or manpower but the kind of scrutiny that should come with ministerial responsibility is sorely lacking in our country. Consequently, we find that important issues such as safeguarding integrity and accountability in public office are reduced to footnote items on the governance agenda and allegations against public officials are rarely investigated, if at all taken seriously.
When, if ever, is President Donald Ramotar going to shake things up? This one is on him– he’s in the driver’s seat and the car has crashed so many times since he took over that it must be time for repairs or replacements. One of the biggest smash-ups has been the exit of party stalwart Ralph Ramkarran following a disagreement over the government’s approach to corruption. No amount of repairs has been able to erase the damage left piled up in the wake of this fall-out.
Other major crashes include the granting of a controversial permission licence for a minerals survey in the New River Triangle that would have in due course led to mining, and the signing of an MOU with a dodgy Canadian company for a local waste recycling plant. In both instances, questions were raised about ministerial conduct and responsibility. The responsible minister in the latter case, Ganga Persaud, would eventually resign from office citing “personal issues and other responsibilities.” But no sooner had he made the announcement than reports surfaced about an inappropriate relationship being the real reason for his surprise exit. It didn’t take long for Persaud to deny the allegations, which he described as “malicious,” despite the fact that they were not the first of the kind to be made against him.
This administration, known for invoking the memory of its founding father Dr Cheddi Jagan, can hardly lay claim to the declaration that it is running a “lean and clean” government. And since President Ramotar took office, public confidence in his Cabinet has been eroding. It’s about time he addresses this issue.
In a definitive way, President Ramotar needs to outline ministerial guidelines that demand certain standards from the persons holding public office. This could be his personal stamp on the presidency that many are still waiting to see him make.
In other words, he has to work on a code of conduct that will ensure our officials who are called to serve demonstrate appropriately high standards of personal integrity; a code that will guide his administration and importantly, restore public trust in it. He has to act when officials break the public trust.
Prime Minister Bissessar made this observation following her decision to let Ramdharsingh go:
“There must be no compromise on integrity, no allowance for arrogance, no room for violation of mutual respect; there will be no sacrifice of our values on the altar of political expediency.
“Regardless of whether the decisions I take hurt me politically or not, I have the strength and courage and independence of mind to measure every tough decision on the basis of what is right and just. As I have always said, regardless of the consequences, I remain resolved to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.”
This is what must be communicated to those serving in our government. They must know that we expect them to do what’s right. We hold them to a higher standard—a standard they accepted when they committed to a life in public office. We also expect their conduct to be exemplary and when it is not, we will exercise our democratic right to point it out, and to demand that they answer for any alleged wrongdoing.
The job should never be as easy as the appointment. It comes with criticisms. It comes with regular scrutiny of their actions in both public and private business. It comes with a mandate to serve the people of this country with integrity, fairness and accountability.
In countries where ministers are guided by a code of conduct there is near consensus on the one issue: people are human and they will make mistakes. Agreed. Our ministers are going to fall short of our expectations and some may never live up to them, but that doesn’t mean we are going to compromise on integrity and accountability.
When David Cameron became UK Prime Minister in May 2010, he said this in the foreword of the revised Code of Conduct: “We must be different in how we think and how we behave. We must be different from what has gone before us. Careful with public money. Transparent about what we do and how we do it. Determined to act in the national interest, above improper influence. Mindful of our duty. Above all, grateful for our chance to change our country.”
The service to country and the act of being grateful stand out in the quote. That is exactly what ought to be guiding our public officials. We have given them this important opportunity to govern us, to plan our lives and our future, and for this, they ought to be not only grateful but accountable and responsible.
And if they are having trouble with accountability and responsibility, it is for the President to show leadership and ensure that they do the right thing or face the consequences.
Have a question or comment? Connect with Iana Seales at about.me/iseales