Gleaner Editorial | Shame at the Public Accounts Committee-May 21, 2021

This timely editorial came after a week when the integrity of the Auditor General was called into question by Parliamentarians, some of whom don’t appear to know Jamaica’s Constitution and the independence it gives to the Auditor General, for obvious good reasons.

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There is comfort in the fact that criminal libel is no longer an offence, that a sitting auditor general cannot be removed on a whim, and that Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) members who have been attempting to turn Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) into a Star Chamber against Pamela Monroe Ellis are likely to be on frolics of their own, rather than being under central direction.

With respect to the latter point, we hold that conclusion on the presumption that Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his key advisers would not encourage, or be knowing or willing parties to, any effort to undermine the auditor general on spurious grounds. For while that may appear good for short-term politics, it is antithetical to the good governance to which the prime minister has declared himself committed.

The auditor general is the Government’s chief auditor – a post established by the Constitution. Her job is to ensure that the financial accounts of government ministries, departments and agencies are properly kept and taxpayers’ resources are accounted for. From time to time, the auditor general conducts special or performance audits of entities and projects, which sometimes unearth inefficiencies and probable corruption, which may not only result in criminal charges, but prove embarrassing to governments.

In recent times, the Mrs Monroe Ellis’ probes of the Petrojam oil refinery and the education ministry are cases in point. They discovered nepotism, cronyism and other apparent acts of corruption. They led to the resignation of one minister and fraud charges being brought against another. Other public officials are also before the courts. Boards of institutions were forced to resign en masse

NOT THE ONLY ONES

But this administration, and the party from which it is formed, are not the only ones to have been discomfited or embarrassed by the work of Jamaica’s auditors general, including Mrs Monroe Ellis, who has been in the job since 2008. For instance, an audit by Mrs Monroe Ellis of the Factories Corporation of Jamaica (FCJ), covering the tenuring of the former People’s National Party (PNP) administration, disclosed a range of problematic issues, the Cabinet’s approval of the sale of more than 11 and a half acres of land, valued at J$164 million, ostensibly to a community trust for J$10,000. 

Up to the time of the release of that report, shortly after the PNP left office in 2016, the trust was not registered, and its directors were three private individuals. “…We noted that the title did not include a restrictive caveat to prevent the unauthorised disposal of the property in whole or in part,” the auditor general said. “Consequently, we were unable to determine the terms and conditions governing the transfer.” 

Only months after that report came the auditor general’s revelations of a fat gratuity/golden handshake payout to a former boss of the Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ), who was already entitled to three hefty pensions. Other managers were also awarded pensions outside the scope established by the finance ministry and without the ministry’s permission.

Apparently failing to appreciate the potential of their behaviour to weaken accountability, the JLP members of PAC seem to believe that they can best protect their party by undermining public confidence in Mrs Monroe Ellis, which, ultimately, is an attack on the office of the auditor general. In so doing, they scraped for purchase via an audit of her office, conducted, as is required by law, by the finance ministry’s internal auditor. 

In the normal scheme of things, the matters flagged by the finance ministry’s audit – some of which have been walked back – would be considered minor and noted for action. But they have become causes célèbres for the likes of first-time MPs Dwight Sibblies and Robert Miller, and second-termer Heroy Clarke, who has recently found a voice.

At a PAC hearing 10 days ago, they spent much of the time haranguing and niggling Mrs Monroe Ellis with the question of why she (with an office of a senior director, two deputy auditors general and two heads of sections of similar rank) was not at an exit interview more than a year ago with the finance ministry’s auditors. It turned out that she was scheduled for a meeting of the PAC (which was postponed at the last minute), so had delegated the task.

NIGGLING RESUMED

On Tuesday, the largely uninformed niggling resumed in seeming search for a “gotcha”. 

Mr Sibblies wanted to know why the auditor general’s whereabouts at the time of the meeting more than a year ago had made it into this newspaper before the information had made it to the committee. She could not answer, except to say that she had been asked by a reporter to confirm the date of the exit meeting. 

The Gleaner knew because having confirmed the date of the meeting, it checked with Parliament and the minutes of committee meetings on the day. Mr Sibblies made heavy weather of the matter.

Mr Miller insisted that Mrs Monroe Ellis name the journalist who contacted her. She declined. Mr Clarke harrumphed about Parliament being “the final” that “supersedes all courts”, so when MPs bring someone who is “employed to Parliament” for questioning “we expect to get the answer”. Others joined the charade. There was a question about the respective qualifications of the auditor general and the finance ministry’s internal auditor. She is a Fellow Member of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. He has a first degree in management.

Mr Clarke persistently questioned whether the auditor general had line responsibility to the Cabinet or to Parliament, and remained seemingly suspended between dissatisfaction and incomprehension when it was explained that the auditor general did not fall under a ministry, and has its own budget head. Nothing changed when Section 122 (3) of the Constitution was read to illustrate the basis of her independence. The section explains that in exercise of her functions the auditor general “shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority”. It was a depressing episode. But it underlined the foresight of the framers of Section 122 (3) and the security of tenure the Constitution provides to auditors general. They retire at 60, which gives Mrs Monroe Ellis 15 more years in the post, unless she resigns or does something that warrants impeachment. 

Further, in another time The Gleaner might have been hauled before the Parliament to answer to Mr Sibblies et al.

Memories are made of this-May 19, 2021

I’m not sure what prompted a wave of nostalgia, today, though I have a clear recollection that I was mulling “What if?” things about my life. The first thought that surfaced was to do with my sporting life. I left Jamaica as a 6 year old in 1961 and became a sprinter at school in London. I went on to win the county high schools championships in 100m in the early 1970s. London had a population of 6 million. I then thought about the fact that we have just had the national ‘Champs’ event, when high school athletes compete. Jamaica has a population now of about 3 million–much less back in the 1970s. So, my simple what if was about whether I could have been national schools champion.

I’ve had this thought, often. 🙂

Part of the reason for thinking about it was that I don’t have deep in me any of the common high school affiliations and rivalries that surface, especially, around sports events.

Also, in the UK, there’s no comparable big recognised rivalry between schools across any sports, except between some public (ie private) schools. Of course, in any locality, rivalries exist between schools for a range of reasons, but nothing to spark county-wide interest and certainly not national interest.

Was my life the lesser for maybe starring on the wrong stage? I’m not complaining.

Jamaica, COVID trends and vaccination update-May 13, 2021

Health and wellness minister’s ‘COVID conversation’, this evening, focused on the vaccinations push, whose push has stalled pending more supplies.

He reported that 146,000 have gotten their first doses:

Over 50s can now get their vaccine doses:

Second doses are being administered, but supplies available are still not adequate, but another 60,000 doses are due to arrive in coming weeks.

The rebroadcast of the ‘conversation’ and the overall picture of COVID infection are in the thread below:

Central bank digital currencies-May 8, 2021

I’m not a fan of cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin. But, as a former central banker, I ought to take note of plans by central banks to introduce digital currencies, not least because they would have the distinct advantage over cryptocurrencies of being regarded as legal tender. So, I better start reading up on them as some of my favourite central banks are amongst the over 85% of such institutions that start to dip their toes into the water.

Soldiering on-May 7, 2021

I don’t live in an area of Jamaica that is under either a state of emergency (SOE) or in a zone of special operations (ZOSO), where the presence of soldiers is a commonplace, sadly. I see vehicles carrying soldiers, often, on the highways, and occasionally, I see them alongside police patrols as I drive around the country. But, oddly, I see them most often on the golf course. What? The Jamaica Defence Force often use the areas around Caymanas Golf and Country Club for training exercises. It happens to now abut some areas that are in SOE.

However, as I went out for my regular walk and practice around dawn, earlier this week, I saw a ‘jeep’ with about four soldiers come into the car park. The vehicle went past the caddy area then came back with only two sitting in the front. The vehicle then drove off.

As I went to start my walk, I saw two young soldiers standing looking at their mobile phones, rifles by their sides, absorbed with messages.

Absorbed by the contents of the bag

I said good morning and asked if they’d been left there; they had. I joked that they had been fooled by the old trick that someone would come back for them, but would eventually have to run about 15 km back to base. The light went off in their heads. I giggled and went on my walk.

They seemed to take it for granted that I was not threat, but, is that really the smart attitude? What do I know about military training and always being at the ready?

New COVID restrictions in Jamaica through end-June 2-May 5, 2021

PM Andrew Holness announced new restrictions for the period throuhg June 2, covering the Memorial Day holiday in late May:

While most restritions are unchanged, schools will go back to in-person for certain examinees from May 10.

Also, the travel ban from the UK has been lifted, while a ban has been placed on travel from Trinidad & Tobago.

Many are against renewed visitors from the UK not least because of the UK variant, and despite the UK making good progress with vaccinations, but are mindful that a previous surge had possible origins in the resumption of travel from the UK.

COVID-19 in Jamaica: Wary of a Third Wave-May 2, 2021

This excellent summary of the still-high concerns about the possibility of a 3rd COVID ‘wave’/‘surge’ in Jamaica, by fellow blogger, Emma Lewis, is worth a careful read. Its points about reopening Jamaica’s borders, especially to the UK (in light of evidence that the UK variant was behind our current 2nd wave) point to the ongoing tussle over lives versus livelihoods.

The Ministry of Health and Wellness held one of their regular press briefings on April 29. It was not hard to detect a change of tone – and it was …

COVID-19 in Jamaica: Wary of a Third Wave

COVID update, Jamaica-April 30, 2021

Health and wellness minister, Dr. Chris Tufton gave a broad update on COVID trends, yesterday evening, including stressing the need for people to get their second vaccination, which are noted in the thread, below:

The chief medical officer, Dr. Jaqueline Bisasor-McKenzie, added an extensive assessment of how trends has been affected by various restrictive measures. She gave stark warnings that a third wave could occur if people ease off the protocols and it would likely be worse than the previous two.

It would likely push health services way beyond their capacity.

She cited a long list of countries that were in a third wave, though the worst situation is in India, having its 2nd wave, whose crisis now needed help from other countries.

With that background, Dr. Tufton pointed to confirmation that the ‘UK variant’ had been found in Jamaica and was perhaps behind the 2nd wave:

When asked about statements that flights from the UK would resume on May 1, he gave a circuitous reply, suggesting the decision had not yet been taken but was for consideration by Cabinet subcommittee over the coming weekend.

This clearly begs the question whether tourism minister Bartlett’s categorical statement on reopening borders to the UK was premature.

Reasoning ability 101, Jamaican-style-April 27, 2021

The house phone rang last Friday and my wife answered it: “Dennis? I’ll get him.” Before she even started to approach, I asked her who it was and what did they want. People don’t generally call me on the house line. She said it was Z, who helps around the house, asking about a machete; he’d gotten a message from our housekeeper, who’s gone abroad to sort out her passport. My wife relayed a message that Z had read our housekeeper couldn’t find the machete. I just jumped out of my couch. “Stop dealing with foolishness!” I yelled at my wife. She couldn’t understand why I was so frazzled, so fast. She told Z that he could speak to me when he next came to the house, in a few days.

He came to do one of his regular sessions yesterday, and I asked him about the call. He explained that ‘Miss G’, the housekeeper, had left him a message on his phone about a missing machete. I looked at him and asked how she could be concerned about such a thing, given that she’d been in the USA for about 10 days. He kept on about the machete. I said that’s not relevant, but just ask himself what sense the message could probably have. It was more likely that an old message just appeared on his radar. He blinked and saw that he was chasing a rabbit into a dark blind alley. But, he still went to check on the machete, which was where I had left it the day before, after doing some chopping. The ‘missing’ machete was a figment of imagination, but concern about it based on a message from someone in the USA showed a lack of intelligence.

If it’s still not apparent, there’s no way that our housekeeper, 3,000-plus miles away could have any issues with things going on at the house, unless she’d suddenly become Superwoman with x-ray vision or had master intercontinental travel without need for aircrafts.

I have lots of conversations with people in Jamaica where they don’t see that they have no logical basis for the points they want to discuss. But, they press on, regardless, and I keep saying the basic principle of the argument has no sense; just stop the discussion.

I fall back on the fact that I was only educated for three years of prep school in Jamaica and I know that they (rote) teaching here leads many to struggle with constructing arguments without first establishing some important assumptions about the points at hand.

I had a similar experience yesterday when discussing the exchange rate, where it seemed some people didn’t understand the basic arithmetic of exchange rate conversion, so that they did not see immediately that if someone had say US dollars, then the Jamaican dollar depreciation was a gain for the US dollar holders. They still went on about how people were suffering from the weaker Jamaican dollar exchange rate. Worse still, someone stated “only rich people gain from deprecation”. I guess all those ‘rich’ people we’ve seen lining up outside Western Union and other remittance agency offices prove the point….NOT.

Such is the lot of many issues in Jamaica. I’ve decided to really give my brain a holiday and not engage in discussions where people cannot see white and black are different, let alone that there’s a place between that’s grey.