09 August, 2010

Fresh Air

Publicising the work of the Executive Council:  The historical lack of transparency in the government of Anguilla is not so much a constitutional flaw, but a public relations disaster.  There is no organized and systematic disclosure to the public by any government press officer of the work of government, particularly of the Executive Council.   
        Sporadically, the Governor discloses some development that is of interest to him.  Very occasionally, the Chief Minister drops a hint or remark about the workings of government.  All the rest of the workings of the government of Anguilla is left to the rumour mill.  Only when there is a crisis or an emergency in government is any effort made to give out information.  That information is usually biased in the direction desired by the person delivering it.
We will all remember the recent history of government press conferences.  Chief Minister Hubert Hughes started them during his administration in about the year 1988.  None had existed previously.  They came to an end with the advent of Chief Minister Osborne Fleming’s administration in the year 1990.  No doubt Mr Fleming felt that such press conferences had become discredited because of the abrasive and destructive way in which they had been conducted. 
Mr Fleming resumed holding Chief Minister’s press conferences in about the year 2007.  It did not take long, however, for Mr Fleming’s press conferences to descend into pure politicking.  The weekly Chief Minister’s press conferences provided some public entertainment until the end of the administration in early 2010.  While they were not as abusive and destructive as they had been under the previous administration, they were widely recognized as being purely political.  No useful information on the workings of government or the decisions of Executive Council was ever released at these press conferences.  Now that he has taken over the administration, Chief Minister Hubert Hughes has resumed giving his weekly press conference in his own inimitable style.
These press conferences are not what are needed in Anguilla.  Besides providing entertainment, they serve a political purpose.  But the people are entitled to be informed about the workings of their government.  We need to have a regular weekly release of information on the major decisions of the Executive Council and on the steps the administration is taking to implement government policy.  It is high time for us to begin insisting that Ministers must expose the workings of their Ministries and Departments to the people. 
Frequently, Ministers go for years without reporting to the House of Assembly on the workings of their Ministries and Departments.  If no member of the Legislature complains, who can blame the Minister for keeping quiet about what he and his Ministries are doing? 
All of us in Anguilla remember the low opinion we held of what was then perceived as a secretive, remote and probably abusive police force up until 2007.  That was the year that Police Commissioner Keithley Benjamin introduced the weekly police press conference.  The result of this opening up to the press and public has been nothing less than an astounding turn-around in the public’s attitude to the regular requests of the police for cooperation from the public.  It is incomprehensible to me that this refreshing transparency has not been transferred to the work of the Executive Council. 
We should insist that the Executive Council meetings are opened up to the public whenever possible.  Is it only the “white” Overseas Territories of the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar that have the self-confidence to hold a press-conference immediately after every cabinet meeting to inform the public and publicise what decisions have been made in the public interest?
To summarise then, the solution to the perceived lack of integrity, accountability and transparency in our small-island territories of the West Indies is largely due to deficiencies in our Westminster Model Constitutions.  These Constitutions typically provide for the forms of government, but do nothing to establish mechanisms that ensure checks and balances on abuse of power.  The solution is to insert into our Constitutions, whenever we get the chance, the proven mechanisms that have been developed in other parts of the world that will ensure that best practices are followed.
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