By RICHARD COULSON
“IT IS worse than a crime—it is a mistake!” These were the words of alarm from the statesman Talleyrand after Emperor Napoleon ordered the summary execution of a popular rival in France.
I think about these words every day as I read a fresh story of our political regime over the last five years. Fortunately, the PLP never executed anyone, but they committed just about every other kind of offence imaginable, whether called malfeasance, misfeasance (criminal or civil), corruption, fraud, self-dealing, cover-up, cronyism—or simply first-degree incompetence.
Beginning with the budget debate, the new Ministers have been peeling the covers off “a cascade of charges”, and the public are scandalized.
The outrage is only normal. But it’s getting mixed with hysteria. Usually rational commentators are grandly accusing the new Government, of doing nothing “against those persons who milked the Bahamian public. “
Attorney-General Carl Bethel is accused of indifference, of little talk and less action. The Punch reports that FNM Ministers want him fired, for not following the party line. “The people want justice” others write, presumably meaning arrests, prosecutions, convictions, jail terms, and Mr. Bethel is not delivering
To his credit, he has not been stampeded. He knows well that Parliamentary accusations and press publicity do not automatically translate into legal action. If we do not want to be governed like Venezuela or other banana republics, every charge must be precisely investigated to determine whether it’s indictable, followed by a trial and possibly an appeal, all of which are long proceedings —that, incidentally, cost a pretty penny against the people’s treasury.
Many of the charges of “milking the Bahamian public”, even if the facts are correct, cannot be considered a “crime” and would not pass the desk of any prosecutor.
When the BAMSI contractor was discovered to have ignored the required building insurance, could he or the Minister or responsible civil servant be criminally charged? Probably no, despite gross negligence. Is anybody “guilty” in paying $700,000 to the young man for cultural advice to the Ministry of Tourism, or millions to KPMG for NHI consultations? At most, poor judgment. Does the granting of million-dollar repair or maintenance contracts to the Ash Group, or to Minky Isaacs, amount to a crime? Unless direct kick-backs to a government officer can be shown, again no.
This is not to say these matters are insignificant and should be overlooked. But they make clear the difference between “crime” and “mistake”. A mistake can be a huge blunder in public policy, with profound consequences. Talleyrand (no great moralist) was not upset by the act of summary killing without evidence , but he was deeply worried that the death would lead other countries to declare a bitter war against France. Right now, we learn that a criminal investigation has been launched against BEC officials allegedly for theft of funds, a clear case of white collar crime. But the much greater offence has been the continuing failure of Government ministers to produce a cheap and reliable way to produce electricity, a “mistake” of enormous consequence to our economy.
Perhaps worse is the land-fill, or “garbage dump” debacle . People cry “some one should go to jail” for allowing toxic fumes to cover whole housing estates. The favourite choice would be former DPM Brave Davis, for selecting the incompetent Renew Bahamas to do (or not do) the job and never disclosing what they were paid. But even the smartest prosecutor in the A-G’s office would fail to prove that their failure was a crime, not just another monumental bungle.
Not all our problems can be solved by the legal process. Mr. Bethel is taking the long overdue step of appointing a Director of Public Prosecutions, which will doubtless provide him more scope to dig out and punish identifiable violations of the criminal laws on our statute books. But that will not make him any sort of Public Ombudsman, charged with easing every problem that citizens can suffer.
To correct mistakes, we must rely not on the judicial branch of government, but on the executive. Prosecuting negligent or incompetent public servants will do far less good than revising the whole structure of rules and systems by which a department operates, and if necessary ordering wholesale staff replacements. These reforms can only be imposed from ministerial level and pushed forcefully down to the rank and file, with the Prime Minister setting the tone.
Not just honesty must be enforced but mundane matters like getting to work on time, filing papers correctly, replacing traffic lights, and getting mail delivered. Without these practices, even the most scrupulous judicial system cannot make much impact. Courts are not equipped to be on-the-spot watch dogs and efficiency experts.
Many FNM enthusiasts now demand that the Baha Mar sale be reversed, as the Chinese owner is not a “fit and proper” person to hold a Bahamian casino license due to alleged crooked connections with Macao gambling lords. They expect that dirty linen of deals with PLP politicians will be revealed when all the files are opened. These charges are colourful, but only qualify as unproven tales.
In demanding reversal, they are whistling in the wind.
Just because Dr. Minnis entertained Sarkis Izmirlian on the podium at Government House does not mean he will return Baha Mar to the handsome young man.
Bahamians can argue all day and night whether it was a mistake to favour the Chinese bank and Hong Kong buyer, and unfair to the Izmirlians. I personally always thought it was, but that’s history. Business deals in the world of mega-bucks investors and super-power nations can be tough on the players, but cannot be called criminal.
Up-ending the present arrangements might be possible but would be a colossal mistake. Unwinding legal, financial, physical and human expectations would delay opening interminably, and once again leave thousands of workers in limbo. Recently visiting the executive offices, I met several foreigners and many Bahamians cooperating in the rush to completion. Executive VP Sandy Sands and Artistic Director John Cox both were there, working for President Graeme Davis as they had for Sarkis. They had made the adjustment, and so can the nation.
To maintain its hold on the public, the FNM as a party must wind down its harping on the crimes and mistakes of the PLP (blatant as they were) and focus on the creation of new policies, new measures, new projects. Some visionary thinkers worry that the new Baha Mar may pose a risk of Chinese domination of our economy. Most Bahamians are simply content to see jobs and wealth created in the here-and-now.