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PEOPLE & THINGS: Case of rolling the pitch

Peter W. Wickham

PEOPLE & THINGS: Case of rolling  the pitch

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Although I am hesitant to rely on a sporting analogy, I believe it to be a most appropriate characterization of last week’s political events. The venue for this political drama was Parliament’s Senate room, which on this occasion was the location for the Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) hearings.  
The potency of last week’s hearings cannot be understated especially since the PAC has more recently been condemned as a “lame and toothless dog”. The PAC as an investigative body is designed for the Westminster environment where the numbers and independence of Members of Parliament (MPs) are such that there  would be a greater impact.
In the local case, the recent reduction of the Barbados Labour Party’s and later the Democratic Labour Party’s (DLP) numbers to “three” and “two” respectively exposed a fundamental weakness in that the PAC needed to rely on the government it was investigating to form a quorum. This handicap combines with a slightly more obvious reality that the PAC can only react to reports which are available for scrutiny in the second of two terms that any government serves.  
Therefore, an overly anxious PAC chairman would essentially be investigating his or her own administration and we have therefore had long periods when it could not effectively perform its role. More specifically, between 1986 and 1991, 1994 and 2003 and 2008 and 2013, amounting to a total of four out of six terms, the PAC could not reasonably perform its role.
The current political reality is historic for many reasons and while one cannot deny that the DLP Government has sufficient parliamentary strength to implement its policies, it is now becoming clear that it will not have an easy time governing over the next five years.
The fact that the DLP is now in its second term has combined with the largest ever Opposition in this country which can constitute a PAC without the Government’s cooperation. The impact of this confluence was dramatic last week. However, there is one final critical factor that has to be noted.
The reality of the PAC’s “powers” is that it effectively has none.  Like the Ombudsman, it is an investigative body that is not sufficiently well institutionalised to have a direct impact on the issues it speaks to. Certainly, it can receive reports and call “witnesses”, but the PAC does not have police or judicial powers in that it cannot charge or “lock up” anyone.
The framers of the Westminster model have in their wisdom determined that the powers of “broadcast” would be sufficient for both the PAC and the Ombudsman to make their impact.
I have always believed this “power” to be effectively useless, but have belatedly come to the conclusion that it can be quite effective simply because of one recent innovation called the Internet.
As such, for the first time last week, Barbadians listened to these hearings online without the intervention of the state-owned media and this impact will no doubt be further enhanced as sound clips make their way onto the social media sites.
These hearings were likened to a commission of inquiry by one Government senator. His characterization was more appropriate than he might have initially realized since both investigative bodies can be equally destructive if the right people are listening and the correct questions are asked.
It is perhaps not accidental that as we approach (with great trepidation) a period of structural adjustment, the public is presented with salacious details of Government contracts that were not awarded to the lowest bidder, short-term employment that was curiously proximate to the recent general election and packets of spending that were not approved by Parliament.  
Presumably, there is more of the same to come. This is likely to arouse greater interest as we wait patiently to hear how the Freundel Stuart administration proposes to tackle this deficit which is as historic as its margin of victory. Although no fingers have yet been directly pointed at any minister, it is only a matter of time before this happens and one of the 16 victorious MPs is called upon to answer for his or her sins.
The ultimate objective in this instance is political and not criminal; therefore one need only raise doubt and need not prove beyond reasonable doubt that something is “fishy”. Worse yet, this political game is not unlike cricket since one needs only score a single additional run to win the game, and therefore the Opposition’s ability to “take down” any single minister could allow it to claim victory in this match.
• Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).