Mon | May 27, 2024

Peter Espeut | Obfuscation and sleight-of-mouth

Published:Friday | April 19, 2024 | 12:06 AM
Robert Morgan
Robert Morgan

“The executive is separate from parliament. The Minister of Information sits in the executive. The parliament is a separate part of the governance structure. So it is very challenging for me though I may offer an observatory opinion on a matter related to the administration and management of parliament, as we are constantly accused by others of over stepping our limit and commenting on matters and merging the executive and the cabinet. So on one hand you cannot say that there is a separation of powers but then on the other hand you are asking me to opine on an area that is a separate branch of government. It’s actually unfair”. [Information Minister Robert Morgan at last week Wednesday’s post-Cabinet media briefing]

About a year from now when the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in opposition seeks to analyse why it lost the support and confidence of the electorate, one of the honest answers will have to be the obfuscation and sleight-of-mouth of their Information Minister Robert Nesta Morgan.

When asked by a journalist last week whether House Speaker, Juliet Holness, should withdraw a letter of reprimand sent to former Clerk to the Houses of Parliament, Valrie Curtis, the Honourable Minister dismissed the question on the ground that it was “immaterial in the grand scheme of things” as it does not “impact the common Jamaican people on the ground in their daily lives, and I think we need to start focusing on the things that are important to the people of Jamaica”.

Clearly, as Information Minister he sees himself as speaking for “the common Jamaican people on the ground”, not just for the Cabinet; and he has determined that the Jamaican people are not concerned with governance issues, and issues of abuse of power by politicians. Those matters are “immaterial” to voters, especially those in his constituency, I suppose. He knows what he is offering them.

PRONE TO HYPERBOLE

As Information Minister, what he wants to talk about is the declining murder rate, and that “hundreds of lives have been saved since the start of the year”; on the day he spoke the year was 101 days old. When it comes to singing the praises of his party, Minister Morgan is prone to hyperbole.

When asked to comment about the decision of the House Speaker not to release the Attorney General’s opinion on the handling of reports from the Integrity Commission and the Auditor General’s Department, Morgan’s honourable answer (quoted above) was that the question was “unfair” because as Information Minister he should only be asked Cabinet-level questions, not Parliament-level questions, because he believes in the separation of powers.

What about questions to do with local government? Is it fair to ask him, as Information Minister for central government, questions about parochial roads and water supplies?

As it turns out, the reports from the Auditor General withheld for months by the Speaker of the House concerned expenditure under the purview of Cabinet Minister Nigel Clarke, an important member of the Executive arm of government. Surely those matters call for fair comment by the official spokesman for central government?

Robert Morgan has not earned the reputation of being a straight talker, but as a spinner, always ready to play the victim and twist an argument to deflect criticism of the government. Yes, he will be able to take some of the credit for the results of the upcoming general election.

One of the withheld Auditor General’s reports revealed that Jamaica’s tax administration (TAJ) had over three years spent more than J$400 million leasing two buildings it has not yet occupied. When this newspaper asked the TAJ to reveal the names of the owners of the properties, the TAJ declined, because of “prohibitions to general disclosure pursuant to the provisions of the Data Protection Act”.

REDUCING TRANSPARENCY

Passed in 2020, and coming into force last December, the Data Protection Act is aimed at protecting the personal information Jamaicans share with myriad institutions in the private and public sectors. TAJ is seeking to use the act to protect the identity of those who enter into lease arrangements with the Government, thus reducing transparency and accountability in public affairs. What does Minister of Information Morgan have to say about that?

Maybe he will say it is “immaterial”.

This approach is consistent with the secrecy surrounding government contracts newly introduced since the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) was merged into the Integrity Commission in 2017. Previously a list of those who entered into contracts with the government was published annually by the OCG; now it is a state secret. This makes government corruption harder to detect. What does Minister of Information Morgan have to say about that?

Maybe he will say it is “immaterial in the grand scheme of things”.

I do not wish to give the Honourable Minister Morgan all the credit. There are many of his colleagues in government who believe that political corruption and lack of transparency in governance are not issues which matter to the Jamaican electorate. I hope that after their dramatic slide in the recent local government elections they have revised that position.

And I hope that the People’s National Party (PNP) has also taken note. Unless they take a strong anti-corruption pro-transparency stance, the most they can expect is temporary benefit from those who will turn up to vote out the JLP; those same people will vote out the PNP in 2030.

Both the JLP and the PNP must root out questionable characters from their ranks, no matter how loyal to the leader they may be. Integrity declarations must be made public. Jamaicans are not the curry goat voters they were in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com