An issue of governance

Reginald Dumas
Reginald Dumas

SPEAKING recently on the Lovell Francis/Guadeloupe visit affair, PM Rowley is reported as saying that the Government “mishandled” the situation; “we let our guard down.”

He quoted Patrick Manning as telling his Cabinet in 1991 that ministers travelling on government business should do so only at the expense of the people of TT or of any international organisation of which TT was a member. “Meaning,” Rowley added, “don’t take tickets and invitations from (others).”

Quite. But that is precisely what happened here. One or two questions arise.

Did Rowley convey Manning’s 1991 injunction to the present Cabinet? If so, how did this lapse come about? But even if he had never done so, surely it should have occurred to someone in the administration (public officers included) that ministers and officials, especially in this day and age, should not accept such gifts? Here’s an example from my own experience.

I assumed duty as PS to the PM (with the title “Head of the Public Service”) two days before Christmas 1988. The next day, Christmas Eve, a staff member told me there was a gift downstairs for me from a well-known company (the PM’s office was then in the Twin Towers).

What was this gift? I asked. A case of Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch whisky, I was told. I immediately said it should be taken back to its sender, with my profound gratitude for his having so kindly thought of what my needs might be for the season. And that was that. Just consider the possible repercussions if I had accepted.

I suppose I have a much wider international exposure than Minister Francis, and it wasn’t the first time that a “gift” had been dangled before me. (Nor was it the last.) But TT does have a Code of Conduct, part of our Integrity in Public Life Act. It says at section 24(2) that a person in public life (and ministers of government are such people) “shall not…engage in any transaction…or have any commercial interest that is incompatible with his office, function and duty or the discharge thereof.”

Section 27(1) says that such a person “shall not accept a fee, gift or personal benefit, except compensation authorised by law, that is connected directly or indirectly with the performance of the duties of his office.” “Shall,” not “may.”

And what of the Code of Ethics for ministers and parliamentary secretaries approved by our House of Representatives in 1988? Have our parliamentarians read it? Are they even aware of it?

Francis is reported as saying that he wasn’t invited to Guadeloupe by the Karukera promoters but by “the mayor of Guadeloupe.” (That can’t be right; Guadeloupe doesn’t have an overall mayor. So who exactly invited him, and why?) Whether, in mentioning a mayor, he was seeking to draw a distinction between an invitation from a private sector promoter and one from an elected quasi-government individual (the latter being presumed to be more acceptable) I cannot say, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that he received a benefit from a foreign entity, and that our government, in contravention of its own guidelines, went along.

Francis is also quoted as saying that this wasn’t a learning experience for the Government. So what was it, then? The PM publicly concedes that the Government erred, but the Government has learned nothing from its error? Amazing.

This episode, the Maracas sea stage confusion, the Immigration Department revelations, the Darryl Smith saga, etc once again highlight the concern I’ve expressed so often over the years: our good governance deficit. None of these matters is rocket science, but we seem to have developed a marksmanship so exquisitely fine-tuned as to allow us, with only one bullet, to shoot ourselves in both feet simultaneously. And, as usual, it would be someone else’s doing, never ours.

Two last observations. First, Francis is reported to have received a per diem trip allowance of $5,474. Especially if there has indeed been such expenditure of taxpayers’ money, shouldn’t the public be told the results, and action taken thereon, of the “education exchange” discussions for which he officially visited Guadeloupe? And since the island is part of France, is the French government involved?

Second, believe it or not, that daily allowance exceeds my monthly pension, and also the pensions of countless others in the society. Probably serves me right – if I had accepted Eric Williams’ offer in 1976 of a ministerial appointment (and had stayed in the Cabinet for a few years), I would today be receiving something much better. But I preferred to remain a politically non-aligned public servant. Well, what to do. You make your bed, you lie in it.

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