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Inquiring minds want and deserve to know

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I don't know about you, Mr Editor, but the cynic in me tells me that the dogs may bark but the caravan will move on. The reports and findings of the Auditor-General have caused a stir, but will anything really happen?

You may remember the old saw about matters that are sent to committee: so that those in charge can give the appearance that something is being done when, in actual fact, difficult matters are simply being sent there to die.

Today, the joke is that they are referred for investigation, whether by the police or otherwise, and apparently with the same result.

Readers can probably recall any number of recent matters that were referred to the police and/or which are thought to be under “police investigation”. But who knows, for sure? No one speaks about them or provides updates. The best you may hear is that “purposeful inquiries” are continuing. But as more and more time passes, trails get colder, if there are any at all, and memories grow dim.

I accept this may be partly a question of resources. It certainly is with the office of Auditor-General. That much is plain for all to see. It is beyond unacceptable that this critical component of good governance is understaffed; and short-staffed to the extent that the office remains behind in its annual audits, never mind those where special inquiries and more detailed forensic auditing are called for.

Whatever help is required must be given — and now. Even if only temporarily. The need to get up to date is obvious. Remember, and this is equally damning, her most recent report and findings for the three years to March 31, 2012, featured only the results of spot checks. That, too, should give us cause to pause, and to wonder what else lurks that we don't know about.

It's been suggested that the government of the day shouldn't be going on any witch-hunts about what has happened in the past. Depends on what you mean by a witch-hunt, I guess.

But this much is true: the people of Bermuda, the taxpayers, at the very least deserve a full accounting for how their money has been managed, they deserve explanations even, and they deserve answers to their questions; and all of it, too, in the glare of public scrutiny. That's transparency. That's accountability.

What we need is someone, somewhere, at the top with the authority and the will to make this happen.

Last week I referenced parliamentary reform that was promised by the One Bermuda Alliance but has yet to materialise: a stronger and more robust system of oversight by parliamentary committee, which would include a beefed-up Public Accounts Committee. You may think that small potatoes. I don't.

What we need — and need now — just is not happening and certainly not with any speed.

Whatever your view, it is clear that some change is necessary. Dialogue by press release and press interview is no answer. Neither is posturing and playing politics. Those ping-pong conversations are neither helpful nor illuminating, except in a way that was probably never intended.

The net effect is that nothing appears to get done. Confidence sags. Visibly.

But something does need to be done: such as a thorough examination of our system of government and how it operates — or is supposed to — and how it can be improved.

Here's where a commission of inquiry could be most useful, pursuant to a statute dated — wait for it — 1935. It provides for a commission that may be appointed:

• To inquire into “the conduct of any civil servant, the conduct or management of any department of the public service or into any matter in which an inquiry would, in the opinion of the Governor, be for the public welfare”

• To exercise “the powers of those of the Supreme Court to summon witnesses, and to call for the production of books, plans and documents, and to examine witnesses and parties concerned on oath”

• To hold the inquiry in public

Thanks to a 2015 amendment, the power to appoint also now rests with the Premier. But on this, you would think they could both agree, and if a commission has not been a topic of conversation between them, it should be.

There is scope here, too, to hold hands with the Progressive Labour Party given the strong stance that the Leader of the Opposition took on the need for good, no, better governance in his recent Reply to the Throne Speech.

There is a history here that needs to be considered as we look for ways to bring an end to shameful practices that the Auditor-General has told us had become ingrained over the years; as well as to bring an end to what she also described as a systemic lack of accountability and responsibility. There need be no limitations on how far back the commission can go.

If there are continuing police investigations, it is looking very much like they are going nowhere fast — sorry, slowly — and there is this sad, sorry need to tackle these problems ... like yesterday.

We need action now and a commission of public inquiry is a methodical, deliberate way to clear the air and to let the chips fall where they may.

Otherwise, it looks very much like we have to continue with a remarkable system of governance in which no one is really responsible, or takes responsibility, or is held accountable.

That cannot be right, Mr Editor, and, in the absence of water, people should not be made to drink sand.

Help needed: it is beyond unacceptable that a critical component of good governance, the office of Auditor-General, is understaffed and short-staffed to the extent that it remains behind in its annual audits, our columnist writes (File photograph)
Damning report: Auditor-General Heather Jacobs Matthews (File photograph)

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Published December 04, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated December 04, 2015 at 12:20 am)

Inquiring minds want and deserve to know

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