History does not indicate that he said it tongue-in-cheek, so we will assume that the third President of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson, was quite serious when he said that it was the trade of lawyers to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour.
The story of man and the tales of his democracy are replete with examples of laws, rules and regulations so steeped in folly, that when eventually exposed by enlightenment, and agitation, were appropriately discarded on the dump heap of history.
Recently, it came to the attention of Barbadian citizenry that three members of Government – Mr Chris Sinckler, Minister of Finance; Mr Michael Lashley, Minister of Transport & Works and a former Minister of Housing and Lands, as well as current Minister of Housing Denis Kellman – were issued summons to appear before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). It is understood that their presence has been requested before the PAC on December 15, because of concerns raised by the country’s Auditor General Leigh Trotman about financial spending by the National Housing Corporation (NHC).
At issue is the employment of 47 people over and above the approved staff complement for the statutory agency; the auditing of accounts and the laying of those accounts before Parliament and the awarding of contracts for the Exmouth, Coverley, Grotto, Bushy Park and Country Park Towers housing projects. In essence, they have to account for the people’s money.
To date, only Mr Kellman has responded publicly to the issue, indicating that the summons before the PAC was a “witch-hunt”. He also took a shot at the PAC, noting: “Any committee that is not legally done, I don’t worry about.” That committee is made up Government members Richard Sealy, Donville Inniss, Dr David Estwick, Senator Maxine McClean, Jeptor Ince, Darcy Boyce and Adriel Brathwaite, while the Opposition members are chairperson Opposition Leader Mia Mottley and her colleagues Santia Bradshaw, Jerome Walcott, Kerrie Symmonds and Wilfred Abrahams, along with Independent Senator John Watson.
Neither Mr Sinckler nor Mr Lashley has responded publicly to the queries that moved the Auditor General to make specific public pronouncements.
But it gets more amusing.
The Deputy Clerk of Parliament Richard Byer this week expressed his displeasure that details of the summons issued by the PAC had found their way into the public domain. His response on the subsequent attempt to seek clarity on the issue and to engender transparency, was, in the words of Mr Jefferson, to find location in the lawyers’ trade.
Not only did he refuse to address any matter related to the summonsing of the ministers, he suggested that it was an “illegal act” to have the affairs of the PAC bandied around in the Press. We will not attempt here to delve into the correctness of his assessment or interpretation of the rules governing the functioning of the PAC. But we will suggest that since the PAC is not the Private Accounts Committee, but the Public Accounts Committee, that if per chance he were correct, then that related rule be reviewed and changed since it is gratuitous nonsense.
If Mr Byer, himself a former member of the ruling Democratic Labour Party, does not appreciate the absurdity of his suggestion – guided by rules or otherwise – that matters related to the PAC should not be in the public domain, then we suggest that free education in Barbados has been a major waste of time.
It is ironic that such an issue related to the awarding of Government contracts for housing projects and the general outlay of public funds should reduce some ministers to mimicking mutes. One well remembers Mr Lashley, Mr Sinckler, et al, unleashing fire and brimstone on former Minister of Housing Liz Thompson on matters related to contracts to remove asbestos roofing at Kensington Lodge and the building of public baths at Silver Sands, Christ Church, Worthings, in the same parish, and at Browne’s Beach, St Michael. Mr Lashley talked by the hour on these matters. How soon we forget.
It is in situations such as these that procedure needs to take a backseat to truth, transparency and accountability. Some members of Government have suggested that the PAC, guided by Miss Mottley, is playing politics and grandstanding. To that, we ask: so what? It is to be expected. When last we checked there were 30 politicians in the Lower House of Parliament. The State’s hat is now on the Democratic Labour Party. If it were on the Barbados Labour Party we would expect the Opposition DLP to play politics; to grandstand.
But at the end of the day the overriding factor is that the people want the questions posed by the Auditor General answered. Silence or artful dodging from Mr Sinckler, Mr Lashley and to a lesser extent, Mr Kellman, only serves to increase suspicions that there is something for which they must be held accountable.
And for those who hide behind rules, they should reflect on the often posited notion that law is nothing unless close behind it stands a warm living public opinion.