Thu | Apr 18, 2019

Editorial | Reset anti-corruption agenda

Published:Thursday | March 21, 2019 | 1:10 AM

Prime Minister Andrew Holness obviously learned something from Petrojam and its related scandals. So, rather than allow the slow, damaging drip of tawdry and salacious information about nepotism and corruption that eventually brought down Andrew Wheatley, he has quickly fired Ruel Reid, the education minister.

Notably, Mr Reid has not only left the executive, but has resigned from the Senate. We expect him to go, too, as the Jamaica Labour Party’s (JLP) constituency caretaker for North West St Ann. It all seems to be heading towards a stunning end to Mr Reid’s political career – if not worse.

But Prime Minister Holness ought not to believe that Mr Reid’s resignation is the end of the matter, either for himself or his Government. For the public will demand, and deserves, further and better particulars on the development. This matter should also trigger deep soul-searching on the part of the administration on the question of public corruption.

We are not aware of the details behind the allegations that caused Minister Reid’s abrupt and clean departure from the Government, except that they appear to deal with financial irregularities at the education ministry, as well as cronyism at related agencies, as was claimed this week by the political Opposition. In any event, Prime Minister Holness has taken the accusations seriously. He, in quick order, asked for, and accepted, Mr Reid’s resignation, in keeping, the PM said, with “the principles of good governance” and to “ensure that any investigation into matters of concern will not be in any way impeded by his presence or oversight of the ministry”.

PM’S PROMPT MOVE

By acting promptly, Mr Holness has foregone his dithering response when the allegations of inept management, breaches of procurement rules, spending with abandon, and nepotism and corruption first broke at Petrojam, the state-owned oil refinery, and other entities that were part of Dr Wheatley’s portfolio as minister for energy, science and technology. During the Wheatley affair, the PM was galvanised into decisive action, it appeared, only after a probe by the Auditor General’s Department disclosed incidents of apparent misfeasance and, maybe, malfeasance. And even then, staff accused of misbehaviour and poor performance, bordering on incompetence, received generous separation packages, with non-disclosure agreements, on the grounds that it would be supposedly too difficult, and legally costly to approach the matter differently.

Perchance that was not part of its original mandate, it is hoped that a performance audit, now being done at the education ministry by the auditor general, will be expanded to include the current allegations and that its findings will provide a guide to further action. That, however, should not preclude other separate, and independent, investigations by law-enforcement agencies.

The chips should fall where they will.

What is particular worrying, though, is not only that the matter has arisen so fast on the heels of the Petrojam/Wheatley affair. Rather, it is part of a too-long line of ethical controversies that have dogged the Holness administration in the three years it has been in office, which started with the case of ministerial involvement in the selection of a contractor and in identifying workers for a community-clearance project ahead of municipal elections only months after the JLP assumed office, about which the former contractor general, Dirk Harrison, had much to say.

Mr Holness, at his election, promised honest government and zero tolerance of corruption. He often reiterates that position. The public’s perception, however, is of a disconnect between the prime minister’s rhetoric and the behaviour of public officials. Issues such as what has now arisen only further undermine people’s trust. Mr Holness, in the circumstance, has to find ways to kindle the public’s faith and staunch their cynicism.

Just as how he organises retreats with his Cabinet and key officials to determine whether policy targets are on track, Mr Holness might find it worthwhile to hold one on corruption to lay bare expectation and to reset his government’s anti-corruption agenda.