The fall of the Integrity in Public Life Bill in the Upper Chamber on Wednesday is as sobering as it is disappointing.
And the collective expression of dismay at this development is not unmerited.
From time immemorial, the parties who have occupied the majority of seats in the House of Assembly have promised to introduce legislation to make it known that corruption has no place in Barbados.
They have all touted the need to hold accountable those who are privileged to serve in public life.
What could be more noble and necessary for a modern democracy like ours?
So, it was with much expectation that the country welcomed the passage of the bill in the Lower Chamber back in July given the fact that it was laid in Parliament since 2018. It received substantive comments from citizens and key groups who appeared before a Select Committee of both Houses and then was further delayed by shutdowns triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
No less than Prime Minister Mia Mottley herself piloted the legislation. She expressed hope that the bill would not be held up in the Senate. The 843-page report of the Joint Select Committee showed her administration was not afraid to introduce ground-breaking legislation, she said.
Today we are back to square one. At the final session of the Upper Chamber on Wednesday, the bill failed to get the nod after it fell short of the required two-thirds majority in the 21-member Senate which did not enjoy a full house.
Ten Government Senators who were present voted in favour of the bill. Two independent Senators abstained – Senators Toni Moore and Reverend John Rogers.
Opposition Senators Caswell Franklyn and Crystal Drakes, along with two independent senators, Monique Taitt and
Lindell Nurse, had earlier walked out of the Chamber. They raised strong objections to the return of Senator Lisa Cummins who had been advised to self-isolate by the Chief Medical Officer after she was among officials who welcomed Ghanaian nurses to the island. Nine of those nurses tested positive for the coronavirus.
Senator Cummins tested negative for COVID-19 and was cleared to return to the Senate by the Chief Medical Officer.
The drama aside, some political pundits suggest the bill cannot now be brought back in its current form.
Others say this provides an opportunity to review contentious aspects of the bill, including the exclusion of judges, the absence of whistleblower protection and the lack of rules to govern campaign financing.
Many have also questioned the reasoning behind proceeding with the vote during yesterday’s sitting given the clear signs that Government was not in a position to secure the 14 votes needed for passage.
Apart from those absent from the Chamber, there were clear signals at the previous sitting that Opposition and Independent senators had serious concerns about the bill and had indicated then that they were not prepared to support it in the current form.
At that stage, it would have been prudent to send the bill, given its critical nature, back to the Lower Chamber for amendments.
We are baffled as to why the Government proceeded to hold a vote on the matter at Wednesday’s session when it seemed destined to fail.
On both sides of the partisan divide, there must surely be disappointment that a bill which would lead to the establishment of an Integrity Commission and strengthen measures to detect, investigate, prosecute and root out corruption is again in limbo.
Integrity in public life is not a cute political nicety. It is critical to the success of this country. The public is demanding more from those entrusted with the country’s affairs and our finances.
Public officials, not just those elected, must be willing to embrace any effort to better manage, protect and hold accountability for the country’s resources.
As we look forward to a new session of Parliament scheduled to start on September 15, we expect that the BLP administration will send a clear signal that the Integrity in Public Life Bill will not linger for another two years, but that appropriate changes will be made and the bill tabled before the House to make good on its promise to Barbadians to eradicate the scourge of corruption.