21 January, 2010
System malfunction? Overseas Report has a very interesting article by Benito Wheatley on the
British Virgin Islands political culture. Everything he says is applicable to Anguilla. I urge you to read it for yourself. His point is that the people of the BVI are discontented with the political system of that . He ascribes this discontent to the political culture of the Territory. Overseas Territory
In the BVI, as in
Anguilla, recent governments can claim to have improved the territory’s progress and development. Yet, some areas of society are worse off than previously. Something is undermining government’s effectiveness. He believes that the blame lies in certain political practices that have been adopted. It is not that the politicians are particularly corrupt, it is that the system they have inherited and have continued to cultivate seems almost designed to cause suspicion and disquiet.
The first corrupt practice he refers to is post-election patronage. The culture of Anguilla, as in the BVI, and no doubt of every British Overseas Territory in the West Indies, is that the first thing a new government does is to dissolve the various Boards, Commissions and Committees established by the previous administration, and appoint their own political supporters in their place, no matter how inappropriate and incompetent they are. They say it is expected of them, and they are only considering the expectations of their followers. There is nothing further from the truth. This is a system of British Foreign Office encouraged victimisation that has existed in our
Leeward Islands since the earliest colonial times. Political victimisation is designed to muzzle a segment of the population and to inhibit free speech in order to give the administration free reign. It makes life easier for the Foreign Office as well as for the local administration. It is an evil system that the British themselves have now done away with. No politician in that country can appoint a single person to a Board or a Committee without that person being vetted by an independent body established for the purpose of ensuring that ability and merit outweighs political patronage.
He calls the second problem with our governments the “headstrong” approach to governance. We in
Anguilla well know what he means. This is the system whereby Ministers are encouraged to believe that only they know best. There is no need for real consultation with the people on certain matters. They have been appointed “to rescue the people from themselves”. Ministers, by their election to the House and appointment by the Governor, believe they have been empowered to take decisions, even when they are contrary to the opinion and advice of technical experts. There is no need to give specific examples from Anguilla. Every one of the public works projects, awards of licences, and granting of permits over the last ten years have proceeded under this system. It is facilitated through the agency of compliant permanent secretaries. The inevitable result of this style is that public confidence in the integrity of government leaches away. The public becomes more and more disenchanted with the system of governance. Their only pathetically inadequate remedy is the quinquennial return to the polls. It is inadequate because the flaw lies in the system that each administration functions under, not with the individuals who happen to have been elected.
Tied to this problem of the headstrong approach to governance is the lack of transparency. Contracts are awarded under a veil of secrecy. Villagers wake up in the morning to find that a public road has been bulldozed through their midst in the night. The Chief Surveyor approves the alteration of boundary marks when the affected neighbours have not been notified of the proposed change. The public works tendering process is neither constitutionally mandated nor otherwise protected from political interference. On the contrary, public works contracts are viewed as a political opportunity to keep contractors happy and in the right camp. Worse, many contracts are awarded to political favourites without any consideration of the public interest in having the work done at a reasonable cost and to an adequate standard. The standard argument in support of this approach is that if government had to consult the public on every issue nothing would get done. Our governments fail to accept that a proper functioning democracy depends on a consistent and dependable consultative process. People who are affected by public works decisions must be given a chance to make their input, even if it slows the pace of government.
His final criticism is the corrupting influence of the constituency system. We in
Anguilla all know about that. The politician with the means to buy off the majority of his voters is almost guaranteed to win his seat in the House. When most elections are won by majorities of less than one hundred, it helps if you have more relatives in your village or district than the other candidate. We expect our politicians to favour the constituency from which they were elected. We demand the right to approach the Minister and ask for his help with a personal problem, even if it means corrupting the system designed for the protection of the public. Planning permission objections are overruled, work permits are granted, and residence permits are awarded, depending on who is the individual applying. This is so routine that Ministers tout it as proof of their concern for the interests of the little man, a source of popularity. It is not recognised for the corruption that it is.
The blame for this must be put where it belongs. The political system, the Westminster Model, does not function efficiently in
Anguilla. We need to put more checks and balances in place. Structural change is needed in the way we do government in Anguilla. A course of re-education for all our senior officials in the principles and practices of transparency and accountability is urgently needed. A legally enforceable and mandatory tendering process for all contracts above a certain level is essential. Transparency in the award of contracts would be a first step. The granting of permits and licences on the basis of merit only, is universally demanded. The vetting of political appointees requires no great change in the law, only a commitment to transparency and accountability. Island-wide elections must be provided for in the new Constitution. These reforms are needed by all the Territory governments of the West Indies.