Governance: Where does the buck stop?

As events unfold further on our national scene, the question ‘Where does the buck stop?’ will no doubt become even more relevant. And all governments have to be answerable on that score. The last thing we want is a situation wherein ‘the ball for every problem is in everybody’s court, which means that it is in nobody’s court’

In the wake of the investigations that have been initiated into allegations of irregularities in relation to contracts awarded by the previous government concerning a number of issues such as public infrastructure, land allocation, transport of fuel, etc., there has been a parade of, among others, several permanent secretaries, CEOs of parastatal bodies and even ministers who have been climbing up the steps to the CCID office to give their testimonies.

In a number of cases the individuals under investigation have had ‘malaises’ which have necessitated a passage to hospital or private clinic. It would not have escaped public notice that — in Mauritius at least – this practice seems to be a routine pattern. However, allowing for this temporary interruption, the enquiries have subsequently proceeded ahead.

Invariably, the persons being questioned have averred that they acted under duress, having received orders from ‘higher up’, or from their respective minister, or even from another minister or, as ex-minister Gowressoo has said, from the Prime Minister. He went further to reveal that he was asked to ‘sign, resign or be revoked.’ Those named are also in due course to be called for giving their version of things.

There is a name for this kind of shifting of responsibility elsewhere: passing the buck. An entry in Wikipedia describes the phenomenon as follows: ‘Buck passing or passing the buck is the act of attributing to another person or group one’s own responsibility. It is often used to refer to a strategy in power politics whereby a state tries to get another state to deter, or possibly fight, an aggressor state while it remains on the sidelines.’ (italics added)

It may involve individuals or nation states, and the entry goes on to give an example of passing the buck in international relations theory, where it ‘involves the tendency of nation-states to refuse to confront a growing threat in the hope that another state will. The most notable example of this was the refusal of the United Kingdom, USA, France, or the Soviet Union to effectively confront Nazi Germany during the 1930s. With the Munich Agreement, France and the United Kingdom successfully avoided armed confrontation with Germany, passing the buck to the Soviet Union.

This action, John Mearsheimer (American professor of political science at the University of Chicago and international relations theorist) argues, shows how a buck passing state can shift the balance of power in its favour: ‘There is no question that the United States benefited greatly from delaying the Normandy invasion until late in the war, when both the German and the Soviet armies were battered and worn down. Not surprisingly, Josef Stalin believed that the United Kingdom and the United States were purposely allowing Germany and the Soviet Union to bleed each other white, so that (the United States and the United Kingdom) could dominate post-war Europe. Prior to the war’s outbreak, the Soviet Union attempted to pass the buck to western powers by signing the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.’

Here, however, we are concerned with the governance of our country which, it may be recalled is based on the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy with a Cabinet chaired by the Prime Minister. The latter is described, or assumed, as being primus inter pares – a first among equals – but it is widely known that, in actual practice, it is the Prime Minister who more or less has the final say. In principle, the Cabinet functions on the principle of collective responsibility, which means that all decisions taken are accepted and approved by all the ministers of the government and that, unless there is problem or political dissidence, any decision at Cabinet taken will be defended by the Prime Minister and his ministers.

From a governance point of view this no doubt makes sense – but on the assumption that the decisions that are taken and the actions that follow are purely in the national interest. In other words, that political party considerations, or individual or vested interests – of business or corporate lobbies – have not influenced the making of such decisions. It may possibly be argued that a group or corporate project can possibly be in the national interest – but as we have seen in the current BAI saga, how does a government ensure that all the players strictly abide by the rules of the game? In other words, that there is accountability and transparency at all levels and in all aspects of processes and procedures that are implicated?

As citizens, having voted a government in, we have no choice but to implicitly and explicitly trust the government of the day and all actors involved to perform on the basis of this social contract of trust. But we know too, alas, that this is not always the case, and the democratic system is meant to address this problem by allowing a change of government when the incumbent one is perceived to have failed to honour that trust. The hitch – and it is a significant one – is that things may be rotting during a given mandate, and the country would have lost that many years, five as is the case in most democracies, in the process.

Thus, strengthening governance structures, enforcing the rules of the game and regular oversight through systemically robust regulatory institutions is an absolute must. But this is also a work in progress, if we are to go by the experience of supposedly more advanced countries in the matter. America, for example, which had to pass the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (often shortened to SOX), by the U.S. Congress ‘to protect shareholders and the general public from accounting errors and fraudulent practices in the enterprise, as well as improve the accuracy of corporate disclosures.’ There must therefore be a degree of objectivity when the decisions and actions of any past government are scrutinized, for as in everything else in life, there is always a mix of good and less good.

Thus, take the case of public infrastructure. The focus has been on the defective half a kilometre of the Verdun bypass, and rightly so because it was a serious lapse and needed urgent reparation. This column did not spare criticism where it was due. But is everything wrong in the sector? Clearly, this is not the case. So many travellers have had nothing but praise for the easing of traffic in other stretches that were built, for example the Triolet bypass that has fluidized traffic flow from Grand Bay, or the Valetta-Quartier Militaire new road that has really allowed commuters to be free of the earlier inconveniences of travelling in that region. And, surely, there are other examples that can be cited of previous government measures that have improved the lives of the citizens. No doubt further improvements can always be planned – but we did say above that the construction of a country is a work in progress, and it is only fair and objective to acknowledge what has been achieved before.

This said, the issue of assuming responsibility is a crucial one in any circumstance and, when it comes to the national level, this is even more so. It is epitomized by the phrase ‘The buck stops here’ that was popularized by U.S. President Harry S. Truman. He kept a sign with that phrase on his desk in the Oval Office. The phrase refers to the fact that the President has to make the decisions and accept the ultimate responsibility for those decisions.

As events unfold further on our national scene, the question ‘Where does the buck stop?’ will no doubt become even more relevant. And all governments have to be answerable on that score. The last thing we want is a situation wherein ‘the ball for every problem is in everybody’s court, which means that it is in nobody’s court.’

* Published in print edition on 24 April  2015

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