Cutting out corruption a vital first step

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MANDEVILLE, Manchester — Claiming “elimination of corruption is a vital first step” in meeting Jamaica’s many challenges, Opposition Leader Peter Phillips says people need assurance that investigative agencies are acting evenhandedly without fear or favour.

Speaking against the backdrop of last week’s firestorm in Parliament regarding a payment package and related non-disclosure agreement with Yolande Ramharrack, former human resource manager at the oil refinery Petrojam, Phillips told business leaders in Mandeville late Thursday that such actions contributed to deep-seated anger and social volatility.

“We can’t have it that some people get golden handshake and that the other man tief a han’ a banana and get three months in prison at hard labour,” Phillips said.

“It is that sense of injustice, that there is no way out for the average Jamaican to find his way, that is at the heart of the disorder and the anger that is spreading through the streets of our country,” he added.

Asking rhetorically “what can be done to roll back this tide of corrupt behaviour”, the opposition People’s National Party (PNP) president said that firstly, civil society needed to “play a much more active role in setting the standards that we expect from government, whoever is in government”.

The country, he argued, was too important to be left to “the 60-plus people in Parliament”.

Phillips told the members of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce at the Golf View Hotel that “nation-building requires the mobilisation of the nation as a whole”.

It was important that Jamaicans “make it clear what standards we expect and demand, more importantly that our security forces and investigative agencies act swiftly and without fear or favour to bring to book (wrongdoers) no matter what their status, no matter what their affiliation, no matter how great their connections. We will have our trust in our national institutions of government restored when we see that there is one law for every citizen in the country and that no one (is above the law)”, he said.

Suggesting “there needs to be greater transparency in the operations of some of our investigative agencies” Phillips said there should be a rethink of the operations of the National Integrity Commission which seeks to foster integrity and target corruption in Government.

“We (parliamentarians) were all in parliament when the law was passed and there is a clause which says they must not give a report as to their investigation. It’s a clause that needs to be changed. Because quite frankly the public at this point needs reassurance that investigations are in fact being undertaken,” Phillips said.

The Opposition leader said that while he was not calling for unnecessary invasion of privacy, it was important that Jamaicans do not feel “that breaches are being swept under the carpet”.

Also, he said, “when it comes to accountability, parliamentarians should be the first in line to be placed under scrutiny”. As such, he said, Integrity Commission reports of parliamentarians’ income, assets and liabilities outstanding since 2014 which are reportedly at the Office of the Prime Minister, should go to parliament.

“I think the best thing to happen is for them to be placed in the Parliament and let the chips fall where they will…,” said Phillips.

He reiterated his position that “qualified, honest, patriotic persons who have expertise… should be able to apply to become a member of (statutory) boards”.

“That means that you can get people whose political affiliation is either not known but in any event is not important. We can find an independent body, be it public service commission, or some other to make the best assessment and to ensure that on these boards ordinary members of the public… will have a chance to serve.

“They will be beholding to no particular master or mistress but the public interest of Jamaica…” Phillips said.

He told Manchester’s business leaders that his party was committed to such a policy, should it be elected to government.

In lashing alleged corrupt practices at a number of public companies, including the oil refinery Petrojam, Phillips said it was evident “that this kind of conduct has penetrated almost every area of government operations and that the amount of money involved is massive”.

In claiming that “one individual” received $32 million over 18 months for a job she was not qualified to hold, Phillips said it would take a teacher “at the lower end of the scale 20 to 25 years to accumulate the same amount of money. Or put another way it could employ 25 additional teachers for a year…”

The Opposition leader said Prime Minister and Energy Minister Andrew Holness had acted unsatisfactorily in dealing with the multimillion dollar package and nondisclosure arrangement with Ramharrack.

The deal was unwarranted, he said, since the auditor general had done a comprehensive report outlining numerous breaches surrounding her tenure at Petrojam.

Phillips described as “strange” the reported failure of the government to consult with Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte on the matter.

Phillips said that perceptions of corruption were hurting efforts to grow the Jamaican economy. He claimed the country’s standing in the corruption perception index of Transparency International took a hit last year as a result of the Petrojam scandal.

“Bad money drives out good,” said Phillips. “Any country that becomes known to be a haven for illicit funds or corrupt conduct will find that the name-brand investors in the high-tech sector and other areas that would lift our economy will stay away,” he added.

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