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Twisted words of political double-speak

T & A, Mr Editor, transparency and accountability, are the key to good governance. Both words are bandied about frequently by those in and out of politics, myself included. The two principles are, we are told, the dynamic duo to democracy, the Batman and Robin if you will, that can set things right; or, on the other hand, the one-two counter punch should you be on the wrong side of what's right.

The challenge sometimes is figuring out exactly what the words mean. Here I defer to Humpty Dumpty who told Alice: “When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean — neither more, nor less.” And that, friends, pretty well sums up how it seems to work in politics when it comes to promises of transparency and accountability.

On the other hand, what counts is how they are actually translated into action. We have had two recent examples: -

n PATI is to become fully operational by April 1, 2015, some five years after the principal Act was passed and the promise of a new era of governance was ushered in. The fact that it took five years is nothing to be proud of. The Caymans did it in less than two years from start to finish. But, and in any event, the legislation is there to facilitate access to information. Legislation is not necessary where there is a commitment to openness and transparency and is actually practised by those who are in charge, without fear or favour.

n That OBA Donations Report which attempted to provide transparency where none was actually required by law, but came up short on so many fronts. The irony here of course is that its public release came on the very day that the House on the Hill was giving final approval to PATI. Although the timing may have been deliberate for other reasons: it also happened to be the last sitting before the summer recess, and with the Opposition out on a boycott, there won't be any debate on this on the Hill until November when the House resumes.

But being subject to public scrutiny is actually the point to transparency. Accountability then follows. It is this practice that needs to be ingrained into our system of government, and not something to be used, misused or abused when convenient. Our Westminster system can easily accommodate the changes required.

On both the need for change, and a solution, check out the most recent 2013 report of our Ombudsman, in this instance the out-going Ombudsman (Ms Arlene Brock), who points out the limitations of our Legislature when it comes to oversight of the day to day operation of government. “The Ombudsman institution fills the gap”, she writes, “[we] have the necessary investigative resources [to act] as the eyes and ears of the Legislature.”

Fair enough; although I have always maintained, and still do, that the Legislature should and could be doing a far better job of keeping the Executive in check through a more active and robust network of bi-partisan committees starting with PAC, the Public Accounts Committee. This is useful work on which backbench, MPs can cut their teeth and make their mark whether Government or Opposition — and it isn't all about debate and who can shout the loudest or talk the longest. They can still be adversarial but around the table through application whether in the form of research or questions and answers.

Whether or not this becomes the practice, the former Ombudsman believes that that office has a critical role to play in ensuring transparency and accountability along with the Auditor General and the Public Service Commission. Ms Brock refers to the three offices as the emerging “Integrity Branch of Government”, a class which she thinks could be extended to include the Parliamentary Registrar, the Human Rights Commission, Police Complaints Authority, Department of Internal Audit and the impending Information Commissioner.

I know, I know, it all sounds like more government and more bureaucracy that, like so many good ideas, tend to work well on paper but not so well in practice. But our job is to make it work, for us.

We know our system of governance could use an overhaul. We are not alone. Only recently the Speaker of Parliament in Barbados marked their 375th anniversary by declaring that it was time for change. He expressed his reservations about a system which “appeared to pit Government and Opposition inexorably against each other in aggressive, contentious and ofttimes seemingly unnecessary confrontation”. Sounds familiar does it not?

In Washington DC, surprise, surprise, they are looking for answers too. A distinguished group of citizens, including a bi-partisan group of former elected officials, were tasked with coming up with the means by which they can improve. Their work, recently released, is entitled “Governing in a Polarized America: A Bipartisan Blueprint to Strengthen Our Democracy”. Jolly good luck to them too. We can keep any eye out.

We do not necessarily need anything so grand here: just the will to get on with it and to get on with it now. As I have said many times before, it can start with those at the top, with those who have the power to actually effect change.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS everyone. I will resume after I enjoy mine.

PS Have a great Cup Match. Stay safe and play fair — and may the best team win, of course.

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Published July 30, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated July 29, 2014 at 7:26 pm)

Twisted words of political double-speak

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