By : CHARLES WILKIN QC
Lindsay Grant, Minister in the Unity administration, said last week that the Unity manifesto on which they were elected in 2015 was “a contract with the people” and that “Unity has delivered on almost everything in the manifesto and more”. I assume he used the word “almost” because Unity has not delivered on their fundamental contract with the people to make government and the electoral system open, transparent and accountable which it is not at present and never has been.
Unity won the election because the electorate was persuaded by them that the last Government had become undemocratic, outmoded and corrupt and was in for too long. They were adamant that the system needs fundamental changes. That was their mantra and theme throughout the campaign.
No Government ever delivers on all its promises in a first term and I do not expect otherwise of this administration. However one expects substantial progress in a first term on the key promises. Two of the key promises of Unity were their good governance agenda and electoral reform. I think it all the more appropriate and relevant and of great public concern to examine their record on those promises in the light and context of the recent appointment of a Salaries Review Commission to review the salaries and allowances of Ministers of Government, Parliamentarians and the Speaker of the National Assembly. In colloquial language Unity Ministers want more pay.
I have no problem whatsoever with increases in the pay of those who govern and represent us in Parliament. They are in my opinion substantially underpaid. I have always expressed this view. Politicians in office should be well paid but they should be held firmly to account. One small country which has successfully practiced this is Singapore. Singapore was a backwater 50 years ago. Now it is one of the most prosperous, orderly and advanced countries in the world. And it is the size of St. Lucia. It has achieved such amazing success in large measure because of good governance, lack of corruption, business enterprise, sound education, high productivity and strong social order. Its Ministers of Government have for many years been among the highest paid in the world. But there are stringent laws on transparency and accountability. Corruption and abuse of public office is not tolerated.
The last St. Kitts and Nevis Salaries Review Commission reported in 2005. There were modest increases recommended. In its report the Commission went at great length into the need and importance of good governance and recommended legislation to regulate integrity in public life, campaign finance, the procurement process for government contracts and greater openness in government. The Committee was very aware that the relatively small salaries paid to Ministers expose them to the temptation of corruption. They said this in support of the recommendation for campaign finance regulation: “Our history demands not only that our leaders not be bought and sold but that we proudly proclaim that this is virtually impossible and that any attempts to do so would be subject to criminal sanctions imposed by law”.
The Commission was right. Leaders should not be available for purchase and sale. Because of the enormous power and responsibility entrusted to them they should be above reproach. Corruption drains an economy. It is the honest taxpayer and the hardworking men and women who pay the price when Government funds which should go to provide essential services are syphoned off into the pockets of public officials and their private conspirators and cronies. Corruption affects the investment climate and the reputation of a country. It is often hard to prove but even the perception of it affects the morale of the country. Corruption grows like a cancer until it destroys the system. Often the country is laid low at the same time. We see examples across the world.
Needless to say that in 2005 the last Government took the pay increases recommended by the Commission but did sweet “FA” on the recommendations for campaign finance and other governance legislation. This Government came to power promising to rectify that. Let’s examine where they have reached.
Term limits- this is still a grand promise. This was one of the first pieces of legislation introduced in 2015 but it has fallen into abeyance with no explanation. This was the lynchpin of the Unity platform. There will be enormous suspicion if they back off on this.
Anti-corruption legislation – the Procurement Act was passed under Labour in 2012 but was given no teeth as they “forgot” to pass the Regulations. Unity has “forgotten” as well. The Antiguan Prime Minister recently made an amazing confession as to how Government contracts are corrupted, using the price of a crane as an example. He said adamantly that is the system. It reminded me of the joke about the Bajan, the Jamaican and the Trinidadian who were bidding for a Government contract. The Bajan bid $3 million, the Jamaican $6 million and the Trini $9 million. The Government official said to the Trini why your bid so high. The Trini said 3 for you, 3 for me and give the Bajan the work. Is that our system too? As our last Salaries Commission said we should be able to say with confidence no way but we have no basis for such confidence because there is no legislative structure to guard against corruption of that type and to disclose it if it happens. And we were promised it. There is still time Lindsay for you and Unity to keep that particular promise. There will be more than suspicion if you do not. There will be a smell.
Freedom of Information – an Act was passed a year ago but has not been brought into effect. What is the problem? Are Unity having second thoughts? What do they have to hide?
Campaign Finance reform- who is paying for the charters. Who is paying the election bribes to voters? We don’t know, we have never known and it seems that we will not know in the next election either. What we do know is that a Governing Party is usually better able to attract campaign finance than the Opposition so maybe Unity wants its turn in that role.
Integrity in Public Life – the Act became law on 11th July 2018 and the Integrity Commission has been appointed but again no Regulations so we should not expect any Minister or Opposition Representative to have to declare his assets and liabilities before the next election. And after that who knows. In the mean while we hear plenty “BS” from Unity about the Act. Unity, If you have nothing to fear bring it into full force and effect and let the chips lie where they fall.
Motion of No Confidence – Unity promised that no one else would have to wait 26 months. The Opposition recently brought a Motion. Unity brought it quickly to the National Assembly but smartly curtailed it using another technicality. Are they having second thoughts on this too? Why haven’t they legislated to force a Government to bring a Motion to Parliament speedily as happens in truly democratic countries. Here too it seems that the system favors them so it is okay now.
Civil Service Reform- this was initiated 25 years ago but we still have the old colonial system which Unity called “anachronistic”. They promised reform in these words “to void the political influence that is currently so rife”. Maybe they changed their minds now that they have the political influence.
Public Radio Stations – Unity went to Court to get access and won but ZIZ remains the same. Unity said they would “provide equal access to state owned media to all Political Parties” but that too is an “almost kept” promise too and they seem content to have ZIZ as the Government’s exclusive mouthpiece.
Unity promised sweeping changes to the electoral system which they said is corrupted, unfair and lacking in transparency and independence. They promised a complete voter enumeration process. They promised fixed election dates. They said that the Boundaries Commission is too partisan in its composition and they promised to reform it. They said there was unsatisfactory leadership of the Electoral Commission and they promised to reform that too. But they have done none of those things.
No Lindsay, you are not almost there. Unity has done a lot of what you promised but you have a long way to go and plenty more to do to fulfill your contract with the people. Unity said the current system was corrupted by the last Government. Your colleague Prime Minister in Antigua says it has always been a corrupt system. You said that you stand for open, transparent and accountable Government and you are against corruption. You promised to replace the corrupt system and you said exactly how you would do so. The electorate voted for that. But you are not doing so and at the same time you are asking for more pay. What impression does that leave? It leaves me with the impression that you want the best of both worlds, more salary and allowances and perks and the same old corrupt system to exploit.