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Institutions of scrutiny face challenges
James Madison writing in 1788 in The Federalist Papers said:
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
The relevance of this excerpt from The Federalist Papers is based on the fact that it expresses a critical concern of mankind as regards the promotion of ethics and morality in governmental affairs through the use of controls. It highlights the role of the people as the final control over governments, but concedes the need for “auxiliary precautions” to get government to control itself.
The most potent early challenge for our then-young independent nation where the use of “auxiliary precautions” first arose was the public exposé of the gas station racket by public servant Gene Miles, in her evidence before the Gas Station Licence Commission of Inquiry in July 1966. She would eventually suffer severely as a result of her decision to expose what she alleged was corruption in the award of gas station licences. She was hounded and traumatised until she had to be treated at the St Ann’s Mental Hospital. She died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 42.
Her story as a true-life whistleblower went against the grain of that era where no one really dared to challenge the authority of the State. However, she was attacking powerful oil and business interests in a small post-colonial society. Having celebrated 50 years of independence last week, it is useful to recall the story of Gene Miles if only to highlight her bravery in an environment in which the tools of scrutiny available today were not available back then.
The political culture that was emerging in the immediate post-independence period was one of absolute dominance in the political sphere by the prime minister, Dr Eric Williams. A classic example of this was seen in his announcement on October 10, 1964, at a public meeting that he was appointing Dr Patrick Solomon as minister of External Affairs. This was to take effect soon after his resignation as minister of Home Affairs the month before following the revelation of a scandal involving his personal intervention in the release of one of his relatives from a police cell without proper authority to do so.
Dr Williams boldly stated that anyone who did not like his decision to reinstate Dr Solomon to the Cabinet could leave the country. In calypso, this was described as “who doh like it could get to hell out of here.” The political culture that was established in the formative years of our independence was designed to promote political triumphalism, and that any allegations of corruption by state officials were to be treated as nothing more than political mischief by the then-opposition and other interests who were opposed to the ruling party of the day.
Williams and the PNM faced their sternest challenge on the streets of Port-of-Spain and elsewhere in 1970 when the Black Power movement almost brought them to their knees. The issue then was the cry that nothing had changed since independence and the economy was still controlled by forces external to Trinidad and Tobago.
As a consequence of that, Williams called a special convention of the PNM in November 1970 to unveil the Chaguaramas Declaration which ushered in the era of the state enterprise sector. This was a philosophical alteration by Williams to the core document of the PNM, namely the People’s Charter, whereby the amendment committed the party to the introduction of 51 per cent control of the economy by the State in essence.
The response to the protesters was addressed, but the political and administrative culture that would have to accompany the resultant accountability that would now be required was absent. In those days, any talk about scrutiny, inquiry, transparency, etc was an alien dialogue because such techniques were seen as an assault on the ruling party as opposed to the protection of the interests of the State and the people.
So, where are we today? We have the Special Select Committees of Parliament established under Section 66 of the Constitution in 1999 to probe the work of government agencies and departments, the Public Accounts Committee, the Public Accounts (Enterprises) Committee, the Ombudsman, the Auditor General, the Integrity Commission, the Equal Opportunity Commission, and the occasional commissions of enquiry, but do we have the political and administrative culture to support all of these institutions?
That question is a matter of serious debate as we face the next 50 years of independence. The political posturing that every successive government has faced about corruption suggests a systemic failure or a societal flaw.
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