By Dr Gerard Jean-Jacques
“Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep his word, and to behave with integrity rather than cunning. Nevertheless, our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have considered keeping their word of little account and have known how to beguile men’s minds by shrewdness and cunning. In the end these princes have overcome those who have relied on keeping their word” (Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince).
When the erudite Dr Philbert Aaron (PhD), former ambassador to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (among other positions), remarked some years ago that truth and politics are not related, in whichever language he did so, few seemed to comprehend what he meant and many who chose to comment publicly only displayed their ignorance of what he actually said and meant. Some from that last group still, today, display their horror at that statement.
One wonders therefore, what they would think of Machiavelli if he existed today. In politics and political science, deception is not necessarily a horrible thing. We can identify at least three schools of thought on the subject, the Machiavellians who reject moralisms such as “thou shalt not lie” on the basis that they have no place in the realm of political leadership.
A second category is more moderate; accepting that deception is occasionally necessary to be successful in politics, e.g. when the public’s interest or security is at risk. A third group of writer’s postulate to a more moralistic approach, almost Christian, about deception by politicians. It is bad and it must not happen, they claim.
The Dominica Business Forum held its 2019 “pre-budget discussions” with the “Parliamentary Opposition” on July 11, 2019. There, once again, the leader of the opposition complained that uncooperative “senior public officers” and the absence of a report from the director of audit were hindering the work of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which he heads.
His assertion suggests: (1) That some senior officers felt that they could dismiss his requests for information and (2) the only document that the PAC must scrutinize is the report from the director of audit.
It is not the complaint of the leader that is the subject of this discussion but, more importantly, its significance for our democracy; a concept that the leader, himself, speaks of ever so frequently and passionately. At the heart of this commentary is the view that there is a concerted effort to subvert our institutions of democracy through deception and mischief making in the aim of securing political power. This most recent statement by the leader of the opposition reinforces this observation. There are at least three issues of concern here that we discuss below, but first, let us understand the PAC.
Standing Order 72 of the House Assembly made under Section 52 of the Constitution Order Chpt1.01 is the precise authority under which the PAC is formed:
There shall be a select committee to be known as the public accounts committee to consist of four members to be appointed by the House, as soon as may be after the beginning of each session. It shall be the duty of the committee to examine the accounts showing the appropriation of the funds granted by the House to meet the public expenditure of the State, and such other accounts as may be referred by the House or under any laws to the committee, together with the report of the director of audit on any such account.
The committee comprising two members from the opposition party and two from the executive is chaired by the leader of the opposition. In addition to Standing Order 72, there is also a “Guide for Members” of the PAC, in existence since 1989. The guide is not law, but an operational manual of sorts that describes the framework for the committee; its principles, scope of work, and modus operandi, e.g. it speaks to the collaboration between key senior positions in the public service and the PAC.
There is consequently, adequate formal authority that structures the work and operations of the public accounts committee. This information is widely available to all parliamentarians especially during the “induction period” to parliamentary life. Those who do not know can inform themselves.
It is clear therefore, that the leader of the opposition is empowered by the Constitution to study at least three categories of documents, viz:
- Any “accounts showing the appropriation of the funds granted by the House to meet the public expenditure of the State;
- Any “other account as may be referred by the House or under any laws to the Committee;” and
- “The report of the Director of Audit on” any account that was referred by the “House or under any laws” to the Committee.
The public accounts committee is consequently intended to be a check on the financial management of the executive; not a yoke, but a structure to scrutinize the financial management of the executive, report honestly to the people on its findings, and trigger remedial action by the executive or parliament where necessary. Its purpose is representation of the people (by the people) and rationalization of the spending of public funds.
The PAC therefore occupies a key, highly valuable, position in our democracy; one that empowers the leader of the opposition to summon an accounting officer in the public service to answer questions pertaining to the administration of the funds of the people; as long as this summoning is done within the framework for the public service that is established by the Constitution.
Consider that the United Workers Party (UWP) lost the 2000 general elections and has been the opposition party of the Commonwealth of Dominica since, i.e. the official opposition party. The leadership of the PAC has therefore been in the hands of the Party from 2000. Since, it has met 12 times; twelve times in 19 years. Lennox Linton became the leader of the opposition in late 2014. The record shows that since January 2015, a new election cycle, the PAC (under the leadership of Linton) has met two times, March 17, 2015 and March 24, 2015, or thereabout.
The above details are significant to our understanding of the challenge that we face with Linton’s repeated explanations for the inactivity of the PAC. Any effort by the Leader of the opposition to suggest that the PAC, which he chairs, has not met, cannot function, or is frustrated in its work because the report from the director of audit is non-existent or late must be examined suspiciously.
Such a statement would suggest that the Leader maybe does not understand the intent, scope, and function of the PAC or equally appalling, he is telling a lie. Either of these two is hard to believe. For the purpose of this discussion, we can agree that any statement that is made with the intention to mask the truth and therefore, to deceive, is a lie.
There are therefore two key realities in Linton’s statement that should worry us: That the PAC does not function and that the leader of the opposition feels adequately empowered to tell the nation what is clearly a diversion from the truth: That the scope of the PAC is limited to reports from the director of audit.
A key component of the UWP’s campaign platform has always been perceived acts of corruption by the Dominica Labour Party (DLP) administration, more so under the stewardship of Linton. The PAC gives the opposition the precise tool that it needs to “investigate” the executive and expose any wrongdoings that it may find. (Note, the PAC is not an investigative body per se, hence the quotation marks.) Considering the persistent and vociferous claims of corruption and other forms of financial impropriety levelled by the opposition against the government, one would have thought that the opposition would embrace this tool to lay bare those ‘perceived corrupt acts’ by Roosevelt Skerrit and his team.
This has not happened. Clearly, this has nothing to do with Linton’s inability to access the reports from the director of audit. If that report is unavailable, there are multiple other documents pertaining to “funds granted by the House.” The failure of the PAC to function on behalf of all Dominicans is therefore, an indelible mark of shame and abject ineptitude against the UWP; a disservice, really.
It is equally alarming that the leader of the opposition would unashamedly face a group of respected persons (the Dominica Business Forum) and propagate an untruth that would have been previously repeated in various forums. The issues here are multiple.
However, we can return, very briefly, to the question of deception and lies in political rhetoric. The UWP under Linton has championed the banner of “honesty, integrity, good governance, transparency,” and some other fuzzy Bretton Woodsy concepts that many in developing states confuse. These have been at the heart of the rhetoric of the Party; at least, in rhetoric form. It is therefore disturbing that the Party now utters to the nation what is clearly a significant perversion of the truth.
Has the leadership of the UWP discarded its long held, self-imposed, laurel as a paragon of virtue? If so, why? There are ways to explain this deception; one is a perceived threat to its power position. Research into power relations surrounding the evolution of Dominica’s Integrity in public office act indicates that when an actor perceives a threat to his power, he will use varying degrees of his power resources to protect himself and counteract the threat. This brazen prevarication by a high-rolling political actor smacks of desperation, but this shall be addressed further elsewhere.
Of course, it could very well be that the public image of apostolic adherence to neoliberal good governance concepts is a façade. Whatever the reasons though, the public must be concerned that a political leader can feel so comfortable with telling a lie, even though he knows that his statement can be very easily verified.
Still, this last observation brings us to a third area of concern for our democracy: the relative absence of genuine efforts by the public to hold political leaders accountable. If the UWP’s leadership feels so emboldened it might be because the structural conditions exist that have favoured this behaviour. Political leaders in Dominica, on any side of the political fence, are hardly challenged in their statements and they therefore feel empowered, recompensed even, when they are disingenuous.
The absence of genuine, non-partisan, engagement of political leaders creates therefore a national political environment that facilitates deceptive politicians and the putrefaction of the seeds of our democracy. It has often been said that the journalists and “civil society” would represent the non-partisan positions of the public.
However, it is clear that in Dominica both these groups are in very short supply and where they exist, they are mostly captured by partisan political interests. There is consequently a void of seemingly non-partisan or objective voices that ask our leaders the key questions of “when, how, why, and then what.” This reality is a sore that will lead to septis and eventually, atrophy of our democracy, which will be manifested in many ways.
The excuses of the leader of the opposition for the torpor in the PAC are nothing to be taken lightly, therefore. In fact, in mature democracies, he could have faced a serious challenge to his power position because he admits to the dereliction of duty regarding the PAC and he has, audaciously, either confirmed his ignorance of the functioning of the Committee or has, in a “bold face, no face” manner, sought to deceive the same electorate to whom he has previously boasted of his party’s stance on honesty and integrity.
For Dominica, consequently, that performance by the UWP’s leader is a testament to part of the wider problem with our democracy: Institutional capture. Democratic institutions are captured by linear partisan interests in an effort to gain political power by “any means necessary.”