Columns

Was it really a swift resignation?

Are we at a different place?

Canute Thompson

Sunday, March 24, 2019

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The resignation of Minister Ruel Reid is a teaching moment for the country. I personally wish former Minister Reid and his family all the best at a human and personal level. I reckon that the investigations will proceed as they should, and the chips will fall where they may, but I feel a great deal of pain about this entire episode.

To be clear, I shared a good working relationship with the minister, despite what has been made public recently concerning exchanges between us.

My thoughts are engaged around the larger ecosystem of our politics and what two Cabinet resignations in less than a year may tell us.

I do not accept the narrative being advanced by some that the prime minister acted expeditiously. In my view, he acted expediently. For my sins, I was asked several months ago to inquire what is happening at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information and was told of a HEART/Caribbean Maritime University story three weeks prior to March 20, 2019 by as reliable a source. However, the source asked me not to say anything about it then. I conclude that if my sources could have made the disclosures then, it is highly improbable that people in the ranks of Government could not have only become aware of the goings-on in the last few days.

So, the big question is: When did Prime Minister Andrew Holness become aware of the mess?

Petrojam was a similar situation, but the Holness dithered on the fate of Energy Minister Andrew Wheatley; first asking Cabinet to discuss with him giving up the energy portfolio before eventually he stepped down from his Cabinet position.

So, what should we make of the seeming swiftness in the case of Ruel Reid? Firstly, it would only be swift if the prime minister learnt of the mess a few days prior to the request for Reid's resignation. Holness needs to tell the country.

The Petrojam matter became a full story in June 2018, but it was not until December that the prime minister showed any signs that he was aware. I would not be surprised if the sources which were prodding me months ago — but not willing to give firm actionable information — disclosed their reporting elsewhere at that time. But, based on the little knowledge of the workings of Cabinet meetings, thanks to those who have helped me to understand, a minister may play fast and loose with information concerning his/her portfolio. A minister may decide to be late for Cabinet meeting and then present to a tired set of colleagues. All the features of badly managed meetings can affect the Cabinet, so it is not unlikely that a minister could run circles around a prime minister; therefore, the business of oversight and accountability cannot be exercised only in Cabinet meetings.

The prime minister's failure to have created and implemented job descriptions with clearly defined reporting standards may yet be his Achilles heels.

But if prime minister were in the dark, and not motivated by factors such as the upcoming by-election in Portland Eastern, his motivation for claimed swiftness was about governance and accountability and would mean that we are in a new and better place…clap, clap, clap!

If the handling of Ruel Reid's situation means that the prime minister is a different man from whom he was when Wheatley was in the firing line, then he cannot lower his standard and retain credibility. The bar has been raised.

Both Holness and his staff, as well Reid himself, are carrying on the narrative that swift action was taken in keeping with the canons of good governance. Several commentators, including my fellow columnist and friend, Martin Henry, have commended the prime minister, but I am a tamed cynic in the mould of the towering 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who in his published dairy, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, shares his struggles as a young pastor as he contended with, among other things, the suspect motives of politicians and businesses. So, I doubt that only considerations related to governance informed or primarily informed the seeming swiftness of the prime minister. But I am open to be proven wrong, and would be happy if I were, indeed, proven wrong.

Maybe in a few weeks — if not days — we might come to know more about the prime minister's real motives, and probably about when he first became aware of the mess, but if we assume that his considerations were related to governance, then there are at least five things which need to happen:

1. When?

Holness needs to tell the country the date on which he first became aware of this situation at the Education Ministry? What was it that he knew or was told? And, what did he do about it at that time?

Reports are that police investigations are ongoing, so it cannot in any way do harm to those investigations if the prime minister demonstrated transparency and told the country what he knew, when it knew it, and what he did about it. Such a disclosure is a fundamental starting point to corroborate the self-praise being taken that swiftness was the order of the day.

2. Difference?

The prime minister needs to explain to the country how the broad facts and overarching principles in the Reid case differ from the Wheatley case. In the case of Wheatley, he clearly waffled; here he appears to have waded in early.

My cynical mind has led me to wonder aloud about whether Portland Eastern was on the prime minister's mind. But, as I also highlighted at the time the prime minister was waffling over Petrojam, Wheatley has a large power base in the party, being chair of one of the largest area councils. By comparison, Reid was reported to have been struggling in St Ann North Western, despite heavy campaigning.

All this political fodder may be neither here nor there if the prime minister had been genuinely in the dark and laser-focused on the principle of governance. But these facts would be both here and there if the he had, in fact, been aware long ago and cannot say how the Wheatley and Reid scandals differ.

3. More?

The cases of Reid and Wheatley are not the only two cases of suspected massive wrongdoing to have occurred in the Holness Administration. These cases, in terms of their proximity and scope, may be likened to two Boeing Max 8 planes crashing within months of each other leading all airlines to ground those models in their fleet. The most important question which must be occupying the prime minister's mind right now should be: Are other ministers doing similar things?

The Prime Minister should have been in an emergency session in the days following the public disclosure as he presses his ministers for facts and full disclosure. But he has not done this, which could be a sign that he is not in a state of panic. Let us see what happens in the coming weeks.

4. Standard?

Whether in the absence of an urgent digging-for-facts and full disclosure Cabinet meeting, or alongside same, the prime minister should call on the auditor general to probe every ministry and, given what we may now call the Reid standard, the prime minister must commit to scale the bar he has raised.

5. Look close...

But, in deference to the ultimate form of accountability in the management of public funds, the prime minister should first shine the searchlight at home and call in the auditor general into the agencies under the control of the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation and the Office of the Prime Minister. Both entities have some of the most monied agencies and, with the suffocating bureaucracy which the large network of agencies can create, the conditions for corruption are ripe. With the multiple projects and capital spending across the dozens of agencies, the temptations and opportunities for the type of cronyism and nepotism are vast.

Some of the agencies under this umbrella are National Water Commission, National Housing Trust, National Works Agency, Jamaica Defence Force, Kingston Free Zone, National Environment and Planning Agency, National Land Agency, and Urban Development Corporation.

Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of four books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.


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