The risk of public and eventual judicial scrutiny should jolt all those professing to serve the nation and holding high office to remember that no one can bend rules or cut corners or short change the public interest with impunity
Pravind Jugnauth’s decision to step down as Minister in the wake of the Intermediate Court’s judgement last week pending the outcome of the appeal which is to be lodged by him was a breath of fresh air in the prevailing state of governance in the country.
It would obviously have been untenable not to do so. In the best democracies of the world, such a stance is the norm in such circumstances.
However, the positive impact of this prompt decision has been sullied by all the mounting blitzkrieg from the party rank and file, legal pontifications by all and sundry and in a turnaround of allegiance towards the new powers that be, socio-cultural organisations of every hue and colour. Good governance also means that the latter should stick to the declared calling of their organisations instead of tinkering with politics.
In what looks uncannily déjà vu, all this conjured razzmatazz is obsequiously aired with a vengeance on prime time MBC TV as of old. Nothing seems to have changed. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The independence of the Judiciary is a cardinal principle of our parliamentary democracy as is the separation of powers between the Executive/Legislative and the Judiciary. Governance encompasses a diversity of principles, ethical values and norms of behaviour to ensure that decisions especially by persons occupying public office are not only unimpeachable but deemed to be so. Laws have been enacted to shepherd and benchmark some of these elements. For example, the judgement of the Intermediate Court inter alia hinges on the principle of conflict of interest. This is an absolute principle. This basically means that a situation of conflict of interest exists in whatever circumstances whatsoever when the conditions described as conflict of interest in the law prevail.
There is also absolute prohibition for a public official finding himself in such a situation to take part in any way whatsoever in any decision making process and stiff penalties are included in the law to act as a deterrent. This is a simple rule but of such capital importance to ensure strict governance on such a fundamental issue. In a detailed argumentation based on the principle of conflict of interest, the Court pronounced a guilty verdict. It is now up to the upper Courts to arbitrate the merits of the appeal.
This case should however not mask the questionable conditions surrounding the disconcerting government decision to purchase Medpoint, which was no longer operating as a private clinic, in 2010 for a Rs144.7 million price tag from public funds for conversion into a geriatric hospital which is yet to see the light of day. It raises serious questions of governance and about the doubtful benefits of this decision to the public interest.
Good governance by example
Good governance is an absolute concept. For too long, standards of political ethics and governance have been allowed to plummet to abysmal depths. A toxic culture of licence that everything goes has been allowed to hold sway unbridled by rules of probity, a high code of ethics or the bulwarks of a rigorous system of checks and balances. It is obvious that in such a lax system of governance, unchecked impropriety of every kind or the bending of rules have taken hold. These cannot meet the test of objective scrutiny. This is evidenced by the multiple alleged malpractices of the past and scandals uncovered and under investigation since the beginning of the year.
The risk of public and eventual judicial scrutiny should jolt all those professing to serve the nation and holding high office to remember that no one can bend rules or cut corners or short change the public interest with impunity. Governance in the country is therefore on trial and under the people’s vigilant scrutiny.
Cleaning the Augean stables of alleged improprieties of the past is a must but this cannot be a substitute for the urgent overhauling of the faulty system of governance in place.
If there is to be a necessary paradigm shift in good governance, the elected government must as per the mandate given by the people at the last polls, first and foremost put good governance back on track by framing a new, transparent, accountable and rule based system of governance based on the highest standards prevailing and rigorously adhering to it by example. This is currently not the case.
It is equally important that civil society remains its uncompromising guardian, ready to caution any licence. The status quo, jobs for the coterie and perpetuating the entrenched culture of replacement of political appointees of the old regime or those arbitrarily profiled as close to them by their own cohort of questionable appointees without the due process of transparent and merit based open mode of recruitment, is untenable and must be stopped forthwith.
As has been evidenced so many times in the past, a system plagued by political appointees lacking required professional expertise, in particular to high posts of the government establishment or as CEOs or Chairmen or Board members of State owned companies or parastatal bodies is intrinsically flawed. As has been seen in the cases of alleged malpractices being presently investigated, it also carries the danger of subservient political appointees being complicit and kowtowing to political interference and diktats to the detriment of the public interest.
Furthermore, apart from the risk of having as before to foot the bill of costly blunders, it substantively dents the thrust of our loftiest ambitions as a nation. It is therefore high time that as a fundamental right and principle of good governance, all recruitments in both the public and private sector are effected on the basis of meritocracy through an open, transparent and accountable process. This is vital if we want to harness the vast potential of the more and more qualified youth of the country to innovatively help through their pointed skills to charter a more potent growth path for a better future for all. This is doubly so as the principle source of new employment opportunities is expected to stem from the diverse projects of smart cities driven by the private sector.
To do otherwise would be to frustrate our best brains and talent and force them into exile, as given the choice they would prefer to stay here. There is already strong evidence of this happening on an increasing scale as a growing number of families are seeing their children opting to work abroad to gainfully pursue their dreams of happiness owing to a lack of opportunities here. How we lost our way from the seminal objectives of independence and of those who fought and won independence to ensure better opportunities for their children and descendants in the country they fought for?
The recent history of governance in the country is appalling. It is also a damning indictment of the flawed system in place; the more so as in spite of the government paying lip service to establishing exemplary governance, nothing concrete has been done to do so. The ground reality and the culture of governance remains basically unchanged and as roundly decried as before. Such a situation is unsustainable. It needs to be urgently and fundamentally recast along rigorous and absolute benchmarks which rally the multitude. To do otherwise is to sow the wind and reap the backlash of mounting discontent.
* Published in print edition on 10 July 2015