Eroding the Public Trust

The political class can make or unmake social and economic development of a country. Progress depends on taking the right decisions in given circumstances.

It also depends on adopting the right attitude when taking public decisions. Mauritius has depended on two key factors to make new ground: a solid public institutional setup and a committed political establishment. While the persons in charge of the political establishment have changed from time to time, public institutions have ensured continuity, no matter which political parties came to power.

When things do not work out as expected at the level of public institutions, fingers are pointed to political interferences which would have distorted the proper working of the institutions. It is equally true that public institutions are as good — and will be seen to be so — as the men who head them. But a serious country will not allow a perception to be created that its public institutions can be “kidnapped” by politicians when and as it suits their convenience.

For example, the prevailing loss-making situation of the Casinos of Mauritius (a public sector company) – at a time other places such as Sri Lanka and Macau are busy expanding this sector of activity – is being attributed to politicians who caused them to be over-staffed over several years by appointing political nominees at different levels.

It is also being said that Air Mauritius fell into a precarious situation since past years for the same reason. The airline would thus be now considering a voluntary retirement scheme to overcome the unmanageable situation it has landed into due to political interference causing more staff to be inducted than was necessary.

When the MCB fraud scandal, involving NPF deposits, broke out in 2003, a perception was created in public that vigorous regulatory action, as was warranted, was not being taken against the bank. A political link-up was sought to be made for the alleged regulatory condoning.

A couple of months back, public entities such as SICOM, the NPF and SBM Holdings ran the risk of being dragged into the whirlwind of the disaster brought on the BAI group by political decision. Those public companies were being asked to subscribe to the capital of the National Insurance Company, new-born from the ashes of the British American Insurance Company, just to help out of the catastrophic financial gap towards meeting liabilities incurred towards policy holders. A public debate is being launched today against the allegedly excessive pay of executives of SICOM who must have resisted the poisoned invitation and have resisted calls for payment of “productivity bonus” to the general staff.

We have also seen so many cases of ‘provisional charges’ laid by the police against citizens, having been eventually spurned by courts for lack of evidence. Meantime, the victims have been made to pay heavily with their personal freedoms without cause. It is suspected that some of those ‘provisional charges’ would have been politically motivated.

Thus, undue political inroads made into the proper working of public institutions have weakened the perception of political neutrality numerous such institutions are originally vested with. Some assume that one just has to stand on the correct side of politics to get away with inappropriate behaviour or, alternatively, to be taken in into a web of complications for not being on the right side of politics. Responsible citizens have kept asking that interferences of the sort should cease. It goes without saying that this situation would impact negatively on the country’s international image as a rule-of-law jurisdiction as well.

What about the public institutions themselves? If they are headed by persons abiding by strong principles of good governance, they would not allow themselves to be devalued the way they sometimes are. If those who have been appointed to lead them bend backward to accommodate unjustified political demands upon them – for reasons best known to themselves — they end up eroding the public trust in the institutions they’ve been put in charge of. In that case, they don’t pay attention enough to the institutions’ good standing in public after they are gone. Yet, those who pioneered the institutions in the first place were disciplined, rigorous and allowing of no external interference in their operations.

As the cases of a few public institutions are showing, it is not only the public trust that is eroded in their ability to make a fair delivery on their missions. They also end up with significant financial deficits or simply a trust deficit in terms of their credibility. It may be noted that unwarranted intrusions, once made, have gone on amplifying from one government to the other, much to the detriment of the good working of concerned public institutions.

We must not take the latter lightly. When other countries cannot pin you down on the actual business you are conducting, they charge you with shortcomings in your institutional capabilities. Thus, we were accused of not progressing requests for providing information on Global Business financial transactions promptly enough when so asked by foreign financial regulators. It may not be true. But a perception is created to give the dog a bad name before hanging him for it. Interpreted as use of dilly-dallying tactics when it comes to the crunch, at the international level, it makes people wary of doing business with us and thus affects the working of the economy.

The tendency for politics to undermine the efficient and objective working of public institutions does the country no good. It has never done. It is when politicians objectively stayed away from the working of public institutions that the country gained the trust of investors and the international community. There were politicians who were capable of identifying the limits they should not cross and acted instead to keep up the good standing of public institutions in their portfolio. The element of trust in public institutions cannot be bought and sold at will.

For this reason, there is a duty on civil society, the media and dedicated organisations to arrest any tendency for politics to sap the confidence that should always hold for our public institutions. Their leaders should be asked to abide by the rules whenever they are seen to be embarking on the path of accommodating political pursuits incompatible with the country’s framework of good governance.

This is important. One can realize the importance of this factor by recalling the number of other countries which have travelled down the other path and found it very difficult to ascend the hill once again they’ve gone down the slopes.

* Published in print edition on 8 July 2016

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