Lessons in the PNP/JLP Corruption Competition: What do we really want?

Colour Blind
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It’s been tit for tat in the corruption competition in recent days. ‘Phillips says Holness Gov’t most corrupt in independent Jamaica’, declared the headline of The Sunday Gleaner of September 16, 2018. Prime Minister Andrew Holness fired back on Monday, September 17 with his own headline: ‘Hypocrisy… Holness calls PNP the Caribbean’s most corrupt’.

Fifty-six years after Independence our nations elected leaders are not arguing over who has facilitated the largest growth in gross domestic product. Instead, they are arguing about who has facilitated the most corruption.

Sad, don’t you think?

Corruption is defined as:

1) dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery ( Oxford Dictionary)

2) the abuse of entrusted power for private gain (Transparency International)

Corruption has been a long-standing hot issue for us. Notwithstanding all the heat, there is a need for light on the subject. It has created such a paranoia that the fear of it is driving actions that are sometimes unwise.

Fear is better served to inform, not to guide action. Principle is the better guide for actions.

Corruption accusations abound. There are significant lessons to be learned from this and certainly a conversation to be had to inform the new Jamaica construct. What are these lessons?


1. Take the beam out

First, we all make mistakes, errors, and even take deliberate wrongful actions. Where we have done wrong it is critically important to acknowledge it and repent, even when it is uncomfortable. What we see is people trying to avoid admitting to their errors and others trying to exploit a bad situation for political gain. Some of the most vociferous ones today claiming to expose corruption, or at least perceived corruption, were among the biggest culprits of yesterday — culprits not just because of the mistakes they made, but because they have not acknowledged them and repented.

That now makes them the biggest hypocrites of today. I am immediately reminded of the story of the woman caught in adultery that the people wanted to stone. Jesus’s reply was: “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone.” I wonder, in our time, whether it is the biggest of sinners who are not merely ‘flinging a stone’ but dumping a truckload of rocks. Is it in the hope that the mound of rocks will block their history from our sight. We should treat others as we would want to be treated in the same situation.

No question there are issues of principle to be concerned about in issues like the recent Petrojam affair, and rightly so. It has been called the mother of corruption — compared against what? Unless there is more than what we’ve been told. Have our journalists sold us short? When one political party discovers corruption, or perceived corruption, on the other side, is their response guided solely by principle, or a rejoicing at a potential opportunity to score cheap points and/or driven by jealousy that they didn’t get in on the spoils?

It is love, justice and truth that should inform all decision-making when exposing corruption. Anything else is unjust. All should be conscious of this, including journalists.


2. Responsible journalism needed

Usually when a corruption scandal bursts there seems to be very little investigative journalism, but plenty of speculative, sensational journalism. This type of reporting would be more aptly described as destructive trash journalism — and we know it increases newspaper sales and journalistic bragging points and hierarchy. But where are the serious journalists who will thoroughly investigate matters; obtain both sides of the story, and at least attempt objectivity?

There is a dearth of objective, informative journalism that builds up a society towards maturity. Where is the search for truth? Is there more to it than we are being told? Before publishing, are facts sought? Or is it that facts don’t matter? Does anyone pause to consider the irreparable damage to persons’ reputations that may be done by publishing what often amounts to little more than rumour and salacious gossip? This seems to be the order of the day.

There seems to be little concern to find truth. Many media houses cough up the speculative sensational stories then leave them uncorrected if they prove to be mistaken, incomplete, baseless, or unfair. No search for truth is evident and the retractions, if any, are rarely given the pride of place that the original stories had.

Our nation needs a responsible press. Indeed, a vigilant press is a key player in the democratic process and maintaining accountability from elected officials and government agencies. Responsible caring journalism ought to weigh carefully any utterance or statement that could be injurious to a person, company, or the image of the nation before rushing to publish it.


3. Political affiliation a dirty thing

Another lesson is in the recent discussions about people being hired or appointed to the boards of government entities because they were known to the minister. While there is obvious merit in ensuring that public bodies have the benefit of skilled and competent individuals who bring value to the organisation, have we gone too far, led by our fears? It seems that we have reached an extreme position that anyone known to a minister should not be allowed to serve because of that prior relationship. Now that is a ‘fool-fool’ argument!

First of all, Jamaica is a small society, and the likelihood of people being known personally by ministers of government is very high. Besides, it would be irresponsible for a minister to place on boards individuals unknown and with a percentage of whom can be trusted to execute the vision shared.

Secondly, and more importantly, we must not forget that in a democracy elections have consequences. Our system is organised in such a way that groups of people affiliate for the purpose of offering themselves to serve in various capacities in government. They propose ideas, platforms (manifestos), if you will, and ask the people to choose them. Is it not, therefore, logical that the winning side will put in place members of its team in key positions to bring to fruition the vision that it has promised to the electorate?

This is a conversation that needs clarity in shaping the new Jamaica so there is no confusion, embarrassment, or fear in acting. The scope and framework must be clear, even to the point of numbers and positions in all public entities.

The political system is one of the key methods of offering oneself for public service. If affiliation with a political party is disqualifying for public service then we should just throw out democracy and go with a technocracy!

Democracy is not a perfect system. It has its flaws, but what is better in this current age? Technocrats are fine and necessary, but who will develop the vision and set direction?

We need to acknowledge that one of our problems is that we have collectively so vilified politics and politicians that we assume that no good thing can come out of it/them. And yet we need our political system to work for us. And we need good people to enter and remain in politics.


4. Watch fear-based decision-making/regulation

Our history has made us paranoid, leading us to near panic at the sight of anything that remotely resembles corruption. We run the risk of fleeing from shadows.

Fear can lead to irrational thinking and, therefore, we must watch out for the danger of fear-driven decision- or policy-making.

The fear-based approach is a negative one as it is restrictive, inflexible and oppressive in the long term. It is an approach that tends towards creating a regulation for every conceivable circumstance because we are afraid of what people may do with power.

But just as abuse of power leads to bondage, so too is over regulation a form of bondage. We were made free from physical slavery — although most of us remain in bondage to mental slavery. Our fears are driving us to institute a new slave master: over-regulation.

We cannot regulate everything. Men were never designed by God to be robots. Man is a free moral agent and must be allowed to think and make choices. Man was made to be free and responsible.

With the extreme issues we have faced in the past, we must be careful not to swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. Balance is what needs to be maintained. Instead of putting all our focus and energy on what can go wrong we need to begin to focus on the positive things that we do want to see. For example, let us promote principles of integrity; teaching the nation — right down to the young ones in school — what it means to be a person of integrity. A person of integrity, a person of good character will do the right thing whether there is a regulation or not.

The only way to avoid the enslavement of over-regulation is to love freedom and to teach the society that freedom comes with responsibility. Responsibility is guided and underpinned by moral values and respect for one another. Where knowledge and commitment to values are low, irresponsible behaviour is inevitable, so more regulation is needed for control. This control has to be exercised by some external force and, hence, it is just another form of slavery. True freedom — freedom that is exercised responsibly — is inextricably linked to self-control.

So when we insist on a highly regulated environment we are inadvertently saying that our leaders of society have no moral standards; hence, they cannot be trusted with responsibility. This is a sad indictment, indeed. Such is the result of a fear-driven society. It leads to bondage, enslavement, and erosion of freedom. Fear is not a good master; love is.

Is this what we want for a new Jamaica? Do we want a society ruled by over-regulation or led by men or women of integrity? If men and women of integrity then prepare the people and train them for it. I prefer to be ruled by men and women of integrity, conscious of their imperfections and likelihood of error at times than by heavy-handed regulation. If the people fail, we can vote them out. If we opt for over-regulation, we must prepare for inflexibility, oppressive enslavement, and for the courts to rule on all matters. We tie the hands of those who need to be flexible and adaptive in a rapidly changing world.

Instead of focusing on prohibitions and restrictions, we should set standards and expectations of the new Jamaica, its political leaders, civil service, citizens, police and private sector. All we usually sell on the news, in parliament, etc, is what we do not want; let’s talk more of what we want.

This is why if we don’t sell values in our schools, music and media channels, we cannot expect behaviour change. Look at current societal outcomes and what we have marketed and sold over the last 30 years and see if there is not an inescapable correlation. The emphasis should be placed on what we want to guide our society. Focus on the positive expectation, not on the negative fears. When the negative approach is used, most people do not realise what the positive is. For example, ganja prohibitions based on fear blocked us from seeing the medicinal value and the benefits to be derived.

We need to discuss what is really expected of those in power. Where expectations are clear and known, then anything that doesn’t fit is easily understood, seen and forsaken.


Progress or not?

Lest you think that I am naive, let me hasten to say that I understand the problem that we are trying to address. Jamaica has had a history of corruption in its politics. Shell waiver, Cuban light bulbs, furniture, NetServ, farm work, Manatt-Phelps, etc, the scandals are perhaps too many to name — even though both Holness and Opposition Leader Peter Phillips seem to be doing a good job keeping corruption stats. But, like they said in that ad, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Thanks to active civil society groups, such as Jamaicans for Justice and National Integrity Action, now corruption levels are much lower than 25 years ago. The governments have also done a lot in terms of legislation and institutions designed to stem corruption. Just look at the issue of voting fraud and election violence. Have we achieved perfection? Clearly not! But we should be grateful and acknowledge the tremendous strides we have made.

We have put good mechanisms in place and raised the consciousness levels and put greater fear in those who are easily tempted to do evil. The high corruption rate that prevailed years ago created fear that sparked action to reduce it. We are in much better days, but we can’t see it because we are blinded by our fears. However, we do need to keep sharp and ensure that we, in as short a time as possible, eradicate this evil penchant from our midst.

It calls for resistance to temptation and cooperation from all of us. Comparing corruption performance notes from public platforms to rile up a crowd will not do much to get us over this hurdle.

In the new Jamaica let us see leaders who are prepared to compete and compare party notes on matters of integrity and other positive nation-building issues. Corruption should hardly be in view, if at all.

Copyright © 2018 by Rev Dr. Al Miller.

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