Political brinkmanship at a high price

This newspaper has, since its foundation to today, been an ardent defender of strong ethical principles in the administration of public affairs. It intends not to depart from this principled self-imposed code of conduct. While approving of all that makes for the general good, it will not refrain from castigating all weird manners of abuses by whomsoever. In particular, it will never compromise on the principle that wealth unlawfully acquired – currently the subject of Parliamentary debate — by individuals or companies should be strictly brought to book and that those who have defaulted in this respect should find their ill-gotten wealth dealt with in a proper and objective judicial setup.

Mauritius Times will defend any well thought-out piece of legislation aiming to bring the axe to bear on defaulters. We cannot stand in the way of legislation therefore which contains no seeds of discrimination vis-à-vis whomsoever and whose implementation remains in impartial hands as a real deterrent against politicians, businessmen and public servants abusively amassing illicit wealth at public cost.

But we will oppose any legislation which essentially defeats the spirit of our democratic Constitution. This is what we feel the proposed legislation called Good Governance and Integrity Reporting Bill (GGIR) represents in its present form. It does not meet the test of objectivity since its implementation lay in the hands of politicians and politically appointed executives, not in the Judiciary where it should properly have been lodged in a system such as ours.

This piece of law is exposed to potential abuse. The manner in which it is conceived brings about a climate of mistrust and suspicion in the public as to the specific political ends it may be made to serve. Moreover, it is on the point of introducing a social aberration in terms of what the French call ‘délation des moeurs publiques’. The population will be spying on each other or simply casting aspersions against those they dislike. In simple terms, it is not motivated by a spirit of fairplay and transparency in its implementation. It is prone to selective bias and has the potential to keep the entire population in fear of the wielders of political power at any time.

Having set this down, let us consider the issues that have arisen in the context of a new proposed change in the legislation by the present government on this subject.

For the past two months, the government has been trying all it can to pass this controversial law which would usurp the powers of the judiciary, worse, it would deprive all citizens of their entrenched Constitutional right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt. It will also overtake the people’s Constitutional right to silence since silence will be interpreted under the proposed legislative changes as an admission of guilt.

This proposed legislation involves amending the existing Constitution and enacting a related piece of legislation giving police and judicial powers to political appointees in a body constituted within a ministry to chase up individuals for wealth that they cannot explain to its satisfaction.

We have taken the stand since the introduction in Parliament of the original version of the GGIR in October that this proposed legislation falls short of fundamental accountability that any properly constituted law should satisfy. Even if the executives of the proposed Integrity Reporting Agency and the Integrity Reporting Board sitting in a ministry are appointed by the President after the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have consulted each other regarding such appointments, we have a President not elected under a public voting system. The President is appointed by the legislative majority. This could place in doubt the ultimate independence of the Presidency.

To put the matter in perspective, we should look back into our history. Just like the present government, the MMM unexpectedly secured a 60-0 win in the general election of 1982. In the hubris of power and with a desire to avenge itself against certain high-ranking public servants who, it considered, had thwarted its political progression, the party voted a Constitutional amendment in 1983. In the conjunctural circumstances created by its massive electoral victory, it gave itself powers as a government to sack public servants at its discretion. It is the background against which some of our best performing public servants were sent off.

The Constitution stands amended as such to this day. No succeeding government has thought it fit to reverse that decision. Why? Politicians like to get powers, the more the better! They have made the country’s top public servants feel that, should they, even when doing their work dutifully, incur the wrath of politicians in power, they stand to be sacked.

Since decisions like this travel down into the future, this Constitutional amendment has brought in its wake a huge collateral damage for which the country has been paying a heavy price. It has quelled what was once the indomitable spirit of self-renewing public service that served Mauritius with brilliant realisations, without fear of being thrown out or supplanted by others less capable at the whims and caprices of politicians.

Usually, economic growth is sparked off by a close coordination between capable public servants and a private sector brimming with ideas and optimism about the next economic peak(s) to attack if past recipes aren’t proving sufficiently result-oriented. But, if like the public servants intimidated by the Constitutional amendment of 1983, private sector investors fear that they risk becoming the target (now or at a later stage) of a politically driven body on the lookout for unexplained wealth, the effect will be the same on them as that of the 1983 amendment on genuine public servants.

If private investors have the feeling that depending on political caprices, they stand the risk of having the sword of Damocles of unexplained wealth hanging over their heads – because business is not always free of certain detours which politicians can pick up at will to do them utmost harm – the ‘animal spirits’ of entrepreneurs will faint. If at all, investment will be timidly undertaken and wealth will be accumulated outside the country to the extent possible away from prying eyes.

If the currently contemplated unexplained wealth legislation were to go ahead, no doubt politicians would score some amount of success to eliminate their targeted natural political adversaries. But the business environment will be none the better for it. The problem is that the next batch of politicians will want to keep it to hit at their adversaries – political and business – when it suits them. Or, they’ll suffer it, short of having the right majority to throw it out and even abuse of the power it confers on politically appointed executives working outside the true confines of legality a judicial system provides.

No one appears to be paying attention enough to the long-term negative consequences of having such a legislative framework in place. But the apprehension that it will wreak havoc is real. All democracy-defying legislations have such adverse consequences on the prospects of a nation. That is why the vote to be taken on the proposed changes in the legislative framework by the end of this week will have far-reaching consequences for all.

Besides, those who are sufficiently open-eyed must have noticed how much of a fracture the proposed legislations have created – even if it is no longer expressed frankly and openly in public – even within the ranks of the current government. Power play may have silenced those who see its dangers. Some in the government coalition will not utter a word of reprobation against it even if they feel deeply inimical in their soul in terms of principles of good governance it goes against.

Others are simply closing ranks out of political solidarity, against their personal convictions and aware of its far-reaching negative effects. Still others who were believed to be the champions of our acquired Constitutional rights are mumbling their way into it despite being aware of the short-term targets it is aiming at. The MSM may win the test of loyalty of its coalition partners but it would have laid down, by the same token, the foundation of the foreseeable breakaway of the future. As for the population, it will find itself once again trapped into a helpless position, not knowing which are the right gods to pray to.

* Published in print edition on 4 December 2015

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