EDITORIAL: PAC seems doomed to failure
THE CURRENT RATHER MUTED discussion surrounding the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament ought to mushroom into a meaningful debate that results in sensible change that works to the benefit of the country. Unfortunately, we do not believe any such outcome is likely.
This committee, which is chaired by the Leader of the Opposition and comprises members of both the Government and Opposition, but with the ruling party holding the majority, is charged with being a watchdog over specific aspects of the affairs of the country.
However, by its very composition the body is doomed to be ineffective – and perhaps those who drafted the rules that gave it life knew precisely this would be the outcome.
In this instance, the committee is seeking to conduct an investigation into matters raised by the Auditor General in his recent special audit of the National Housing Corporation, with specific reference to high-rise housing projects constructed at The Grotto and Valery.
Auditor General Leigh Trotman’s report alleged that financial rules were contravened in these two projects, and supposedly the PAC is trying to get to the bottom of it.
As part of the process of conducting its probe, the PAC summoned Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, Minister of Housing and Lands Denis Kellman, and former Minister of Housingand Lands, now Minister of Transport and Works, Michael Lashley, to a hearing that had been scheduled for last Monday morning. None of the three turned up.
For the record, being summoned to appear before the PAC does not suggest wrongdoing on the part of the individual ordered to appear. According to the rules governing the affairs of the committee, such persons are summoned to give evidence, which may even be documentary.
However, failure to appear once one is properly summoned can amount to an offence with severe penalties attached, including a $25 000 fine on summary conviction, or imprisonment for up to two years, or both.
The PAC is not new; neither is its ineffectiveness. It is a body that for various reasons throughout the decades has found it quite difficult to meet to discuss issues that should concern it; and when it has, quite often its deliberations have resulted in no meaningful outcome. There is nothing to suggest that, regardless of the seriousness of the questions raised by the Auditor General’s report, taxpayers should hold out any hope for a different conclusion.
Perhaps it is time to go back to the drawing board and start with the reconstitution of the Public Accounts Committee. Perhaps the country would be better served if the majority of members came from the Opposition – but that too may be asking for an impossible outcome since only the most confident of governments would concede such power to an opposition to probe its alleged failures.
That notwithstanding, it is clear that there is an absolute need for a strong watchdog body of the PAC type and that as long as the current system continues, the country’s ability to hold responsible those its entrusts with the management of national affairs will remain weak and ineffective.
But there may be a way out. Maybe the current Opposition Leader will commit, ahead of the next general elections, to an opposition-dominated PAC to probe her government, should the Barbados Labour Party be successful at the polls.