Opinion: Political commitment

POSTED: 05/12/14 2:43 PM

One of the trending words during the past couple of months has been transparency. Maybe it is fueled by the integrity investigation and by the integrity assessment Transparency International is currently executing. Whatever the reason, transparency is it. After some pushing, the government has finally decided to publish its National Gazette online – a decision we file as definitely positive in the transparency field. The Gazette does not offer entertaining reading, but it does present lots of government information that previously was hidden under a veil of secrecy. No more: anyone is now able to access the Gazette.

After Prime Minister Wescot-Williams touted her horn on transparency in her New Year’s Address (“openness is key”) we called her on it in an editorial and lo and behold, during the next press briefing it happened. The prime minister presented the Council of State’s reaction to the government’s request for advice about the Kingdom’s Council of Ministers decision to instruct the governor to set up an integrity investigation. We filed that as a step in the right direction as well.

We have been searching our brain – and our archives – for something else Wescot-Williams declared in the past about transparency and accountability. We had the picture of the occasion clear in our mind, thought it took some effort to find it back – but in the end, we did. It is June 8, 2009 and the National Alliance is in power. During the meeting of the Island Council that day, Wescot-Williams held a fiery speech as the new opposition leader.

One of the topics she brought forth was about the Code of Conduct for Commissioners, an initiative presented by Lt. Governor Franklyn Richards all the way back in 2002. Wescot-Williams challenged NA-leader Marlin with this text to implement that Code of Conduct:  “Your chance is now, under preparations for the formation of a new government. What better preparation could you want? If you don’t bring it next week, I will. In fact, I will comply with what the ordinance stipulates, even though I am not a commissioner, and even for the time that I was commissioner.”

Of course, Wescot-Williams did no such thing as presenting an initiative to put the Code of Conduct in place, nor did she comply with the ordinance. But her statement has some implications that are still valid today. Her publicly expressed commitment to the Code of Conduct implies that Wescot-Williams is prepared to publish her secondary functions and activities as well as her business interests, including those of her closest relatives.

The never implemented Code of Conduct considers a number of positions incompatible with the function of Commissioner (in the Executive Council at the time). Among them are “the capacity of director, manager or member of the board of a legal entity, or owner of an enterprise, established or active on the island of St. Maarten.” Commissioners also cannot hold more than 25 percent of the shares in a company or be an advisor to the Exco.

The code also requires that Commissioners report secondary functions, activities and business interests, not only from themselves but also from spouses or partners with whom they are living on a permanent basis.

While the original draft code only applies to Commissioners – currently ministers – it makes sense to apply the same rules now to members of parliament, given the fact that they are receiving a more then generous remuneration.

Members of the current cabinet are not allowed to have any side jobs or business interests. Asking the question now from the prime minister, she would probably say that she does not have any. But the situation will change when parties throw themselves into the upcoming election brawl.

How transparent do our politicians want to be? Are they prepared to present to the electorate which interests they hold, which businesses they – or their close family members, like children and spouses – are involved in?

The history of the past twelve years – since Lt. Governor Richards launched his draft Code of Conduct – shows that politicians have no desire whatsoever to be open and transparent towards their electorate. Even worse, based on results they are prepared to turn a blind eye towards undesirable side activities of their colleagues.

The clearest example is the involvement of former Justice Minister Roland Duncan in the prostitution industry. After this newspaper published a series of well-documented articles about this affair in March of last year, all politicians stuck their heads in the sand. Not even the opposition had anything to say about this mother of all embarrassments.

Now the time seems right to remind the prime minister of the public commitment she made on June 8, 2009 – not only for her personally, but also for all candidates that will be on the DP-lost for the August 29 elections. A commitment of the candidates to step down from all their side-jobs and to get rid of their business interests in case they are elected, would send a strong message to the electorate that this time around, transparency and accountability are serious matters.

We have seen already that Emil Lee took the decision to step down as the chairman of the St. Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association after he decided to go into politics – and he has not even committed to a particular party yet. Tamara Leonard, a candidate for Theo Heyliger’s UP, has stepped down in a timely manner as the President of the Chamber of Commerce.

These are little but clear steps in the right direction, but there is a lot more to be done for candidates who have the guts to show the electorate that they belong to a new generation of politicians – one that has no problems whatsoever to put all of its cards on the table.

We could very well imagine that divesting all commercial and business interests could be a problem in certain cases. There is an app for that too: declaring, as a true representative of the people, what these interests are, and that any income from these ventures will be deducted from the remuneration taxpayers fork over for membership of parliament. A third commitment should be not to participate in any discussion or to vote in parliament on issues that touch upon personal business interests.

Candidates that have the guts to commit in such a way to the public cause are the ones worth voting for.

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