IN SOME RESPECTS Barbados is a model of democracy for small states. It is a compact society with a highly educated populace, and a traditional respect for the form of governance which we practise, but there are yawning gaps in public education which need attention.
The current debate about the Auditor General’s report has brought us face to face with this problem. If it were publicly recognised that the office of Auditor General is a constitutionally mandated office, greater respect would be paid to his annual reports by public officers and also by members of the general public.
In the 50th anniversary year of our Independence, people understand the importance of the constitutional offices of High Court judge, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the Attorney General; and there is widespread acceptance and respect accorded to those offices and to the respective office holders.
What a lot of us do not recognise is the equal importance to our system of governance of the office of Auditor General.
The office is deliberately protected from political pressure in much the same manner as some other constitutionally mandated offices, as he goes about his duty checking and scrutinising on behalf of Parliament the integrity of the processes attendant upon the spending of, and accountability for public funds.
We believe that if it was clearly understood that he is the watchdog of Parliament and the public interest in relation to public money, then respect for the office would rise both within and without the public service.
Our founding fathers established a regime of controls over Parliament’s power to raise money and scrutiny over the accountability for that money once it has been approved in the Estimates for the various ministries. Obstruction of the Auditor General in his efforts to audit and report back to Parliament is nothing less than reckless and a “couldn’t-care-less” undermining of the public interest. It must not continue!
Right-thinking Barbadians will therefore agree with Prime Minister Freundel Stuart that what he calls the “unpretending indifference” shown by some Government ministries and departments to the requests for information of the Auditor General must become a thing of the past. He thinks sanctions may have to be applied.
We are in complete agreement that sanctions against those who are uncooperative must be seriously considered. It is a major affront to Parliament, the public and to the Constitution when the Auditor General’s requests for information are ignored.
No public officer would dare ignore a judge’s order of similar import.
But we believe that the reform process must go further than the Auditor General. The Public Accounts Committee must be looked at to see if it needs improved powers to do its job. We recall continuing political controversy about the committee going back over the years. But accountability for public expenditure is so central to our governance system that it must not be beyond the capacity of the two sides of our Parliament to agree on any needed reforms.
Public education would be enhanced if the proceedings of the committee were carried by electronic media, but adequate safeguards protecting the rights of public service witnesses would have to be in place.
Broadcasting hearings of the Public Accounts Committee could expose uncooperative officers to public scrutiny, and might also enhance public knowledge of the stature of the office of the Auditor General.
And that would be a good thing!