“…The first responsibility that devolves upon you is the protection and promotion of your democracy. Democracy means more, much more, than the right to vote and one vote for every man and every woman of the prescribed age…”
—Dr Eric Williams, in his first Independence address, on 31st August 1962.
We are now at a place in which our political parties routinely subject us to misleading promises to win elections, followed by a sharp dose of reality as we realise which financiers are actually in charge of important public policy. This has been happening for a while now, but while we can criticise the various political parties, our gullibility is at the root of the problem. Many of us still believe in ‘Father Christmas’, so we remain stuck in a loop of high expectations leading to deep disappointment. Frustration and outrage appear to be key features of the ‘new normal’ we are all now living.
Obviously, we need a big shift in how the membership of the political parties hold their leaders accountable once office is attained, but there are other aspects of public affairs which need to change. Some say that once we choose not to vote, we have lost the right to criticise the actions of public officials, since we are effectively opting-out of the system. I believe it is important to remember that politics is not a single choice made by the voter at elections: politics is how we live our lives together and choose everyday.
This article is intended to discuss certain critical issues which arise for Civil Society and Professional organisations. Having considered Martin Daly’s ‘Protecting the Public Interest‘, Wesley Gibbings’ ‘Sorting out this Civil Society business‘ and Christophe Brathwaite’s ‘To sue or not to sue‘, it seems that there is a shared concern as to the proper role and control of these groups. According to Brathwaite’s searching article, there is a real question as to just how we can hold national sporting organisations to account for their decisions.
At this time the Civil Society and Professional groups in our country exist to campaign on various important issues outside of the electoral cycle. Some of those recent issues have included Constitutional Reform; Workers’ Rights; Environmental protection/sustainability; Diet; Women’s Health; Violence in the society; Road Safety; Public Procurement; Agricultural Reform.
That list is a formidable one which shows the range of burning concerns on which we citizens have decided to organise ourselves to campaign. It is therefore critical for our Civil Society and Professional organisations to be mindful of threats to their effectiveness.
My own experience as JCC President from December 2010 to November 2015 and the various issues which prompted my resignation, has required consideration of the lessons learned. These are my views on three of those issues which seem to have wider meaning for other Civil Society and Professional organisations.
WHAT IS THE APT LEVEL OF OUTRAGE FOR PERSONS IN PUBLIC LIFE TO ADOPT IN RELATION TO PUBLIC CRITICISM?
By ‘persons in public life’, I am referring to public officials and prominent citizens who may not be in public service.
This is an important issue, since we are in a situation of flux insofar as the acceptable standards of public criticism.
Do we have to observe silence as to the personal behaviour of these persons or can that be criticised? Where is the line of reasonableness? Is it OK to ridicule the physical attributes of these persons such as their height, weight, complexion or facial features? What of their personal beliefs such as sexuality, choice of religion, dietary and drinking habits? Is there a single, acceptable, standard to which all such persons should conform? If yes, is it therefore OK to criticise or ridicule those who do not conform to that standard? In the alternative, is it that we adopt an entirely liberal position which effectively embargoes any personal criticism?
The existing situation is one in which there are certain issues about which it is acceptable to criticise or ridicule, right alongside customary silence on other, seemingly more delicate, issues which are never mentioned. My own position is that there are enough issues arising from the way these people perform their duties for me to criticise or ridicule. I therefore never publicly criticise or ridicule the personal behaviour or choices of people in public life.
A more troublesome series of issues arise when we shift to consider the question of how should we criticise the performance of their duties. Is it that persons in public life are fair targets for the barrage of rumours, innuendoes and plain lies with which the public is beset? Our society has always had a tremendous imagination, which can sometimes be terrible to observe. The growth of social media has caused a seemingly-irreversible flattening of the information pyramid. The result is that we are now in a situation which allows just about everyone to broadcast the basest rumours about persons in public life without the intervention of editors. Add to that these increasingly-litigious times in which thin-skinned people can seek to silence their critics with a pre-action protocol letter alleging libel or slander. That threat of a lawsuit can cost very little to the pockets of those prominent persons and can have a ‘chilling effect’ on the constitutional right of freedom of speech.
In recent years it has gotten to the point that the very politicians are proving to be the most litigious of the persons in public life. As a result, a major part of those lawsuits are within the political ranks – politicians suing politicians.
In the JCC case, the false claim was being made, by some of my erstwhile colleagues, that we were under threat of lawsuit from UDECOTT Chairman Noel Garcia as a result of the letter to the editor published in this newspaper on Sunday 27th September 2015. I refused to apologise for what seemed a necessary and critical observation made as to the apparent contradiction arising from Garcia’s silence in the face of repeated reports of his reluctance to appear at the Las Alturas Commission of Enquiry. In the event, Garcia did testify, so it seems that those concerns ventilated in the media were misplaced. I now know that Noel Garcia never requested an apology from the JCC, so he is not one of those thin-skinned public officials whose eagerness to sue is an unacceptable threat to the proper enjoyment of freedom of speech.
It is interesting to note that in the USA, the society to which so many of us aspire, public officials are effectively unable to sue for libel and slander, so strongly defended is the right to freedom of expression. Witness the many bizarre and insulting media attacks on President Obama and his family without any lawsuit.
WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS FOR CIVIL SOCIETY AND PROFESSIONAL GROUPS OF THEIR LEADERSHIP BEING COMPRISED OF PERSONS ACTIVELY INVOLVED IN THE ‘ISSUES OF THE DAY’?
This is a more delicate issue, in that a significant part of the vitality of those organisations is derived from the degree to which its leadership is involved in the issues of the day. Some of the organisations are headed by retired persons who are so detached from the issues of the day that they are unable to properly evaluate and respond to the various challenges arising. This is why the organisations must make every effort to attract into their leadership the active professionals who are fully engaged in those issues. Of course that has to be balanced by a mix of older, retired persons who can share their experiences with colleagues.
The other challenge is ‘How do we counter-balance the role and influence of organisation leaders who are deeply involved in the issues of the day?‘ It is not only the JCC which has had to grapple with that issue, as there are several other Civil Society and Professional organisations which have in their leadership persons who are either high-level State Appointees or the beneficiaries of major State contracts.
What is the apt stance of high public officials in relation to lawful enquiries?
This is a troubling issue, given that $2,000 is the maximum fine for refusal to appear at a Commission of Enquiry, which the parties involved in the high-level crimes under investigation are easily able to afford that. That low fine is entirely unrealistic, having been set in 1976 and never revised. There is also the growing public unease about the expense, purpose and tangible results of Commissions of Enquiry.
This is one of those issues in which we can see the gap between what is legally acceptable and what is ethically acceptable.
Most recently, the Chairman of the Las Alturas Enquiry, Justice Mustapha Ibrahim, in his closing statements on Monday 11th April 2016, lamented the failure of two important witnesses to appear. The first of those witnesses was former UDECOTT Chairman, Calder Hart, whose testimony was required since UDECOTT purchased the Las Alturas site for housing before it was transferred to HDC. The second witness was China Jiangsu International Corporation (CJIC) the company which had been awarded the contract to design and build the ill-fated Las Alturas complex.
In this case, Garcia responded to the JCC’s letter to the editor by explaining that he had received no summons from the Las Alturas Enquiry and would attend once he received a formal request. Now that appears straightforward enough but that reply gave me grounds for concern.
One could understand that insurrectionists or persons who have participated in large-scale fraud would have something to hide or a degree of hostility to any questions being asked on their actions. One could expect evasive or obstructive tactics from that sort of person.
It is not at all acceptable, in my view, for any public official to take such a stance. Far less a high-level appointee who has nothing to hide. To my mind the best practice would require that such an official should be proactive and promptly inform the Enquiry of his willingness to testify.
So, is there an important difference between legal conduct and ethical conduct? On the former point as to the legal limits, only the delivery of a summons can make a potential witness liable to be prosecuted for failure to appear. On the latter point as to the ethical approach, we are being asked in the JCC episode to accept that a public official is entitled to ignore a lawful enquiry until and unless he receives a formal request. I tell you.
I maintain my belief that no public official, serving or retired, should show any reluctance to testify before a lawfully convened tribunal. There can be no reliance on any technicalities or loopholes.