TO BE FAIR, not all commissions of enquiry are a waste of time and public funds. We may be hard-pressed to find evidence of a commission of enquiry in our jurisdiction in which the recommendations have been the basis of meaningful change, but the intrinsic value of an independent, transparent investigation in the public interest is, surely, undeniable.
The difficulty is however that there are so few instances where the findings or recommendations of a commission of enquiry have resulted in policy or structural change or, for that matter, the arrest and prosecution of individuals. What would it take then to ensure that commissions are worth the large outlay of time, effort and money? What really is the point?
There is consensus that in the most general sense a commission of enquiry is a government-sanctioned body, a mechanism of the Executive branch of government, used to investigate and report on controversial issues of great public concern. Commissions, when properly constituted, possess statutory power, which enables investigations to be carried out in accordance with their mandate.
It is typical for commissions to provide the government with a report, which makes recommendations, which are in keeping with the findings from its investigation, and the broader underlying issues. This is critical as it is one of the most important bases for assessing a commission’s value. This statement forms the introduction to a report produced by the Caribbean Policy Research Institute on “Commissions of enquiry and the potential for policy change.”
The report assessed the value added of a particular commission of enquiry, the Tivoli Commission, in the context of Jamaica. However, the analysis and recommendations have broad application, in particular given the current Trinidad and Tobago context, on the approach used and the follow-up required to commissions of enquiry in general.
In layman’s terms, the question is whether costly public enquiries better serve political expediency or the public good? Also, are they designed to be restorative or simply expose the truth?
While the Tivoli Commission investigated links between politics and crime in Jamaica, commissions that investigate so-called white-collar corruption should operate with the same imperatives: to outline the truth, to be restorative by addressing the public’s outrage that an injustice has been committed, to seek redress for that injustice, to restore the legitimacy of public institutions by insisting on accountability, and providing the necessary recommendations to ensure there is no reoccurrence of that which is being investigated.
It is generally recommended that there should be no less than three members, in order to ensure the objectivity of the investigation. Members should be appointed on the basis of their recognised impartiality, independence, competence and integrity. They should not be closely associated with any individual, government, political party, or any party implicated in the enquiry. Every commission has a different mandate, but essentially for an enquiry to have value, these are the broad elements of a constructive approach. Furthermore, among the key guidelines for an effective commission of enquiry is that the terms of reference should not be confined to looking at incidents in isolation. It should look into the facts of individual cases and specific incidents, seeking to identify any systematic patterns, and analysing underlying reasons and contributory factors to the events, which are the subject of the enquiry.
What is outlined here is a wish list of how to go about the over-used and often abused mechanism of a commission to respond to events that affect public confidence in political processes. Unrealistic perhaps from a political point of view given the tangled web of corruption that has dogged procurement procedures for so long, but the public deserves complete transparency and quick action on clear recommendations.
Current issues in this country suggest the need for commissions of enquiry into all manner of policy and structural misadventure, but the unsatisfactory history of their performance demands reforms to the very structure of the commissions themselves.