The police have recently carried out some spectacular arrests. In one case, the Prime Minister even suggested that, if necessary, amendments will be made to the law to impose a measure of discretion to avoid indiscriminate arrests. There is a view however that the law as it is laid down already, caters for the element of discretion to be employed when effecting arrests. It is material in any case that there should be no let-up when employing this tool to send a strong signal that offenders will not be tolerated, and there should be no fear or favour. Once the Police succeed to send the message that whoever misbehaves, irrespective of the political clan he belongs to, will be firmly dealt with, this in itself will serve to deter crime and project a more civilised image of our society. People should have faith that the law will be applied with equanimity and not with the intention to make sensational headlines only, with other motives.
The Police is however not the sole institution in charge when it comes to projecting a higher image of local good governance. It will be recalled that the Privy Council confirmed the condemnation by the Supreme Court of the abuses resorted to during the campaign of the 2005 elections towards the election of Ashock Jugnauth. This was supposed to have sent a signal to politicians across the board that should they have recourse to similar “methods” to get themselves elected, they would risk being ejected from their seat in Parliament. One is not quite sure that the message has really got through.
But a recent judgement of the Intermediate Court in a matter proceeding along similar lines, which is still liable to be appealed against, calls our attention. In the light of an investigation carried out by the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC), the court has established charges of nepotism and influence-peddling brought before it against former MMM-member and trade unionist Bidianand Jhurry. The latter was accused of having given employment during the period 2003-2005 in his capacity as Chairman of the Sugar Industry Labour Welfare Fund to some related parties, amongst others, in that institution. The sentence pronounced is a 12-month term of prison.
We do not know whether the court’s decision will be upheld in the event there is an appeal against it. As a symbol of the punishment inflicted however, this is a strong signal and one that has the potential to set potential future abusers thinking well before they act in this direction. The judgement tends to show that one can still hope to look forward to our institutions to set right a situation which threatens to get out of hand from time to time. It shows that the courts will not be deterred from inflicting some sort of a signal penalty for trespassing laid-down procedures in cases of fraud and corruption. This kind of punishment, if confirmed, can help clean up and contain the system which might otherwise drift away.
Following a lead from information which appeared in Le Défi newspaper recently, the ICAC is said to be contemplating an investigation into an alleged case of gratification against the Director of the Road Development Authority. The latter is said to have obtained free passage benefits, amongst others, to South Africa at the time of the recent FIFA world football cup over there. The donor would be no other than a local construction group, with which it cannot be ruled out that the Road Development Authority could be having contractual obligations directly or indirectly.
This case, if it establishes the existence of perverse relationships between the two parties, should send a clear signal to all those who have been put in positions of authority in the public sector that they may have to remain content with their agreed pay packages if they do not want to be seen as trespassing the bounds of decent public behaviour. They need to have a sterling character so as not to hope to get anything that they do not deserve. It also goes to show that institutions, like the media, when they are not made subservient to objectives other than fair reporting, can help the country stand more firmly on its feet when it comes to matters of good governance.
Mauritius Times was firmly opposed to the cavalier manner in which the so-called National Residential Property Tax (NRPT) was introduced by the previous government. It was a bad signal from different angles. It was nothing less than a disguised wealth tax which amounted to unfair discrimination in so far as other larger sources of wealth in the country, much larger than the targeted wealth tax base in the case of the NRPT, were not concerned by the tax or at all. It contained such an adverse social message that all major parties at the last general elections had promised to throw it out. There was also a risk that this tax, starting at a relatively low base but embracing a wide section of house owners in the country, could be enhanced in future, thereby heightening the element of perverse discrimination against the targeted taxpayers. Moreover, the haughtiness with which the tax was introduced did not speak in favour of its promoters. The government has decided to do away with it and, in our view, it is proceeding in the right direction.
At the time, the general protest lodged against the NRPT took the shape of a petition to the Supreme Court asking that the tax be thrown out on Constitutional provisions which protect the right of citizens to their wealth however little. The court held the view in that case that the applicants did not have locus standi, this being one of the grounds for rejecting the petition. The Privy Council has now ruled that the petitioners are entitled, under certain conditions, to have their petition heard by the Supreme Court. Even though putting up the petition at this juncture may assume academic interest now that the government has decided to abolish the tax, the case will still be important from the point of view of jurisprudence. It will give direction on things that ought not to be undertaken by governments in future and we will progress in that sense. Further, our courts will be asserting their authority most apolitically and reinforcing the system of separation of powers between the three estates.
Can we read from the above developments that our key institutions are awakening up to the urgent need for them to project an image of good governance more assertively than in the past? It would be good if it were so. It has the potential to do much more good than the big statements of international acclaim we receive from time to time regarding our performance in specific sectors. This re-affirmation, or renaissance, as it were, of our institutional set-up will send the right signals to everybody outside the country, but first to ourselves, that we actually mean business and are keen to chart a better course. For, nothing is more damaging to the country’s overall image than a dysfunctional institutional sector, acting upon the whims and caprices of political instigation.
In fact, much harm is done whenever the necessary interdependence in the functioning of the institutions of the country is marred by the fact that one or two among them, start behaving contrary to their expected highest norms and thus distort the character of all the rest. The rules exist already for their proper functioning. Incompetence and the patient search for loopholes by self-seekers make some of the institutions lag far behind in the delivery of the real outputs expected from them. Once the examples set by outstanding performers among them start casting a black shadow on the non-performers however, the latter will not be able to continue harming the essential superstructure of good governance of the country. We need to address this issue firmly and make sure that predictable results are delivered by our institutions across the board.
* Published in print edition on 23 July 2010