Integrity in public life


The present contretemps over the unfortunate utterances of Minister of Public Health Dr George Norton as he tried to “explain” a million line item on spending for drugs storage to the National Assembly that had been converted to a “Committee of Supply” raises once again, the vexed question of enforcing “integrity in public life”.

When they were on the opposition benches, APNU and AFC trenchantly and incessantly criticised the actions of PPP/C Ministers, MP’s and officials in the latter’s performance of their duties. They argued quite cogently that what was needed was a “Code of Conduct” with “teeth” so that there would be clear guidelines for the actors and enforcers to ensure that the country’s business was conducted transparently and ethically.

The Code of Conduct was promised in their Manifesto to be promulgated within their first 100 days of assuming office, which occurred in May 2015: “#16 – A Code of Conduct will be established for Parliamentarians, Ministers and others holding high positions in government public office to abide by, including mechanisms for demitting office if in violation of the Code of Conduct.”

Mentioned en passant in July, it was not until September of that year that Minister Raphael Trotman, upon being questioned by reporters, said there was a “draft” code but, “We believe it should be opened up for public comment, criticism, critique and to be distilled and refined. Hopefully, coming out of it we get a stronger document.”

The “draft” Code of Conduct was finally released the following month and Trotman asserted it was underpinned by 10 principles: accountability, dignity, diligence, duty, honour, integrity, loyalty, objectivity, responsibility, and transparency.”

Since that time, citizens would be forgiven if they thought legs were being dragged and heels dug in when one excuse after another were found to put off the enactment of the Code of Conduct, and launching a programme to enforce its principles on its members of the government, Members of Parliament and government officials.

In the meantime, with some re-assortment of duties between Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo and Minister Trotman, the “Draft Code” was sent to an ad hoc Committee under the Chairmanship of now Minister of Natural Resources Raphael Trotman.

The latter finally submitted it to the Prime Minister in May of this year, after assuring the latter that the committee had “approached the task with alacrity and interest”.

The Prime Minister however, then announced that he was considering subsuming the “Draft Code” into the “Integrity legislation” that had been on the books since 1997.

The PNC, however had then objected to Bishop George being Chairman of the Integrity Commission. Relying on the stipulation in the new Act that the Chairman and members of the Commission must be appointed upon “consultations” with the Opposition Leader, they attempted to deny legitimacy to the body by refusing to engage in such consultations.

This intransigence has continued into the present as the successor to Desmond Hoyte, stuck to his line. In 2005, then Opposition Leader Robert Corbin moved to the courts for a declaration that the Integrity Commission, as constituted, was “unconstitutional” but there has not been a ruling handed down.

It would appear that if Prime Minister Nagamootoo’s suggestion is going to be acted upon, the PNC had overcome its objections and the new suggestion might not be another foot-dragging exercise. However three months down the road, the populace are still to be informed about the status of this most crucial piece of legislation.

After all, it might have been resorted to in the present “Pharmagate” under the clause, “Misuse of Office”:

“Officials…who misuse their office…to benefit their business connections are liable to disciplinary action by the Government or even prosecution by the State. Examples of misuse include an official…responsible for the selection of suppliers giving undue favour (to business connections)…with a view to awarding the contract to the latter, or placing it in an advantageous position ahead of other competitive bidders.”