Ministerial accountability and the public interest

                               Mahatma Gandhi

As I reflect on the above statement, I cannot help but recall the Republic Day accident involving the Minister of Finance when he failed to stop at a major road while driving a motor vehicle. As a result, he crashed head-on into another vehicle hurtling it into the nearby trench, with the driver and a passenger inside. The Minister reportedly failed not only to remain on the scene of the accident until the Police arrived, as required by law, but also to render assistance to the victims of the accident.

Our Attorney General, instead of advising the Minister of his legal and moral obligation in relation to the accident, chose to defend his ministerial colleague. His explanation appeared confusing in that on the one hand, he stated that he did so in his official capacity while in the other, he claimed that he was acting in his private capacity. To compound matters, under public pressure, the Police issued a statement that it was following a special protocol, previously unheard of, for dealing with accidents involving high ranking public officials. Later, the Police issued a further statement indicating that it had investigated the matter and that the file was sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) for advice. The latest information is that the file was returned to the Police but it is not publicly known what that advice is.

Putting aside the overwhelming evidence that the Minister might have broken the law, he may very well be advised to seriously reflect on the above words from Gandhi and in all humility do the honourable thing by apologising to the citizens of this country for indiscretion. Unless he does so, the issue will not be forgotten and will leave an indelible stain on him for years to come. Other elected representatives who have indulged in similar transgressions and other acts of indiscretion should follow suit.

Accountability WatchA related incident occurred in Trinidad and Tobago where a Minister was stopped by the Police after leaving a nightclub. He refused to take a breathalyser test and was not only relieved of his position but also charged, found guilty and fined. The Police made it clear it was not necessary to seek the advice of the DPP because the issue was a clear cut one.

Integrity, morality and discipline in public life

Recently, Trinidadian Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar revoked the appointment of Social Develop-ment Minister Glenn Ramadharsingh who behaved disorderly while on board a domestic flight. The Prime Minister dismissed him despite the fact that he had apologized for his action, claiming that at the time of the incident he was suffering from severe fatigue; and his denial of the allegation that he had touched the flight attendant inappropriately.

The Prime Minister has so far dispensed with the services of 12 Ministers during the four years of her tenure in office. It would have been 13 Ministers to have been dismissed had Jack Warner not tendered his resignation because of allegations of financial impropriety following the CONCACAF Ethics Committee report. Included in the list are: Mary King for apparent conflict of interest involving the award of a contract for website development to a company in which her family has an interest and which is headed by her husband; Herbert Volney for allegedly misleading Cabinet; and Chandresh Sharma for assaulting his former girlfriend.

The Prime Minister made the following statement in relation to the dismissal of Dr. Ramadharsingh:

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…Regardless of the consequences, I remain resolved to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. My decisions in the past demonstrate this consistency regardless of whether you are in my Cabinet or not. No one is exempt from the measure of value based leadership…

All my considerations are character driven. I hold no brief for any man or woman save the greater public interest. I am always aware of the higher expectation upon which this Government was elected and the immense responsibility each of us has to uphold public trust in all we do every single day of our lives. It is not a responsibility we can choose to have one day and lose the next.

I am reminded of Gandhi’s identification of one of seven social sins as being “politics without principle”. I have insisted from the moment we took office that every one of us must display a sound character of public integrity, fairness, humility, compassion and human dignity.

Further, no man, nor woman, has been allowed nor will be permitted to deviate from the very principles upon which my Government was elected by the people into office… I know there will be arguments put forward by some as to what was condoned in the past administration to allow for continuity but I disagree.

As regards the dismissal of Mr. Sharma, the Prime Minister stated that she was not swayed by any other consideration other than that which is right and honourable and that each member of her Administration must be mindful that he or she is held to different, higher standards than ever before, even by the most bitter critics. She further stated that:

There is no privileged escape, no allowance for arrogance, no forgiveness for indiscretion. Those days are gone, such compromise has expired. The responsible leadership which we promised to usher in a dawn of a new era is the new political currency.

My leadership isn’t formed in the mould of loud and angry politicians who feel that shouting and attacking everything is the best way to be heard. But my decisions and policies speak even louder of who I am and what I expect of those around me in government.

The government is stronger than ever because of the tough decisions taken and the population can breathe easier today, confident in the knowledge that value based leadership will never be compromised.

The above statements must rank among the best from a contemporary politician on the questions of integrity, morality and discipline in public life; consideration of the public interest; and governance, transparency and accountability. It was not mere rhetoric – she backed her statements with firm action.

 Politics without principles

The Prime Minister quoted one of the seven things that Gandhi identified as having the potential to destroy us: politics without principles. Arun Gandhi explained what his grandfather meant:

 Those who firmly believe in nonviolence should never stand for elections, but they should elect representatives who are willing to understand and practice the philosophy. An elected representative is one on whom you have bestowed your power of attorney. Such a person should be allowed to wield authority only as long as s/he enjoys your confidence. When politicians indulge in power games, they act without principles. To remain in power at all cost is unethical. When politicians (or anyone else, for that matter) give up the pursuit of Truth they, or in the case of parties, would be doomed. Partisan politics, lobbying, bribing, and other forms of malpractice that are so rampant in politics today is also unprincipled. Politics has earned the reputation of being dirty. It is so because we made it dirty. We create power groups to lobby for our cause and are willing to do anything to achieve our goal. Not many among human kind have learned how to resist temptation, so who is to blame for the mess we find ourselves in?

 Tribute to the late A.N.R Robinson

The 2001 Trinidad and Tobago elections had produced a tie between the two major political parties – one headed by Basdeo Panday of which the Prime Minister was a Cabinet Minister; and the other headed by Patrick Manning. It was then left to the late President A. N. R. Robinson to decide who should lead the new government. Robinson chose Manning. In paying tribute to the late President who died a few days ago, this is what the Prime Minister said:

 If we as a nation are to truly continue walking forward, we are the ones who will hurt ourselves if we remain locked in the past… And for anyone who will hold the pain of the past, I ask respectfully that we allow old wounds to heal, consider what is best for the country and then allow ourselves to grow…

Our duty is to rise above that which pains personally and do what is best for the country… the past is best honoured by learning and let go… Was Mr. Robinson the perfect human being? No, he wasn’t, as none of us here…

 Lessons for our elected representatives

These words are a timely reminder to our politicians here in Guyana. We need to cease being stuck in the past and let go of it; otherwise we end up hurting ourselves and in so doing, we hurt the nation. In all of this, the process of economic and social development of our citizens will remain elusive. Let us forget the past, look ahead and focus on nation-building if our country is to rise to the achievement of its highest potential.

I take leave with the following quote from Alfred Tennyson in “The Passing of Arthur”:

 The old order changeth, yielding place to the new,

And God fulfills himself in many ways,

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?

I have liv’d my life, and that which I have done

May he within himself make pure! But thou,

If thou shouldst never see my face again,

Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of…

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