Resign! Resign! Resign!

By Dionne Jackson Miller

Over the past week, Julia Pierson, the Director of the world-famous Secret Service which guards the US President, resigned her post following growing outcry over the agency’s latest lapse which saw a man scaling the fence surrounding the White House and getting into the building itself.

In the same week, calls intensified for Jamaica’s Health Minister Dr. Fenton Ferguson to step down. Ferguson has been under fire for his Ministry’s handling of the response to the Chikungunya virus, leading the Gleaner to state, in an editorial entitled “Why the PM Should Fire Ferguson,” that “having been so inept in responding to what ought to have been a relatively routine public-health problem, the health minister has little public trust.”

Later that evening, on RJR’s Beyond The Headlines, public affairs commentator Claude Robinson indicated that it was unlikely that Ferguson would either resign or be fired over the matter, given Jamaica’s history of Cabinet resignations.

In that he was correct. Resignations of Cabinet Ministers in Jamaica are the exception rather than the norm. Only a handful spring to mind – then Finance Minister P.J. Patterson resigned in 1991 after the Shell waiver scandal, although famously declaring “I shall return.” Former Housing Minister Karl Blythe resigned in 2002 following a report critical of his and his Ministry’s handling of the government’s Operation Pride housing programme. Most recently, junior minister in the Ministry of Transport,Works and Housing Richard Azan resigned in September last year under tremendous public pressure over his role in the improper construction of shops on land owned by the Clarendon Parish Council. Within two months, he had been quietly re-instated by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller after the DPP announced that no criminal charges would be laid.

Westminster style

Resignation of government ministers is supposed to be a critical aspect of Westminster style democracy. It’s the result of a doctrine termed individual ministerial responsibility, which states that a minister is supposed to be responsible for his or her Ministry, and is accountable to the people through Parliament for whatever that Ministry does.

Let’s be clear, the culture of resignation hasn’t always held over the years, even in Westminster. Constitutional expert Hilaire Barnett cites several examples of ministers not resigning: In 1959 Colonial Secretary Lennox-Boyd did not resign although the security forces killed 52 people in Nyasaland; Home Secretary William Whitelaw stayed put following an incident in 1982 which made headlines around the world (and inspired a naughty calypso) when an intruder got into The Queen’s bedroom. In fact, since the 1983 jailbreak by 38 IRA prisoners from Maze Prison, when the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Prior did not resign, claiming that the break-out did not relate to any policy initiative of his, British ministers have been less willing to take responsibility for the missteps of their civil servants.

Even in Britain, there is disagreement over the extent to which the doctrine now applies, and in what circumstances. The press and the public, however, arguably continue to expect that ministers will take responsibility for policy gaffes.

Most recently, Scotland’s First Minister and Scottish Nationalist Party leader, Alex Salmond, resigned after losing the recent referendum on independence. Much more frequent have been resignations over personal conduct, and in September, the Minister of Civil Society Brooks Newmark resigned after being caught sending sexually explicit photographs over the Internet.

The point is this – is there a role for individual ministerial responsibility in this version of Westminster we operate? And if so, what is it?

No clear understanding

We have no clear understanding now what should be the circumstances which would lead a Minister to resign – an adverse report from the Contractor General? Critical assessments by a public enquiry? Condemnation by a Parliamentary Committee? Public outrage? Or is the bar set so low that we would actually have to see a Minister dragged away in handcuffs and standing in the dock before a resignation can be expected?

Secret Service Director Juliet Pierson resigned after a congressional hearing into the latest White House security breach. Albeit that she was not a Cabinet member, I believe that’s a model that could be useful. Parliament is, after all, answerable to the people. Parliamentary hearings would be an appropriate forum in which to probe issues of major public concern about the handling of national issues.

Let’s have our Government ministers and their teams answering questions before a specially constituted Parliamentary committee – not in the formalistic and tightly structured format of Questions in the House, but in a more useful inquisitorial environment in which issues can be properly followed up, lines of enquiry developed, and the Minister can answer questions and be held accountable to the public. The type of answers we get through a process such as that may well help to clarify whether a resignation is necessary. Even without a resignation, the public would have been accorded the respect of a proper enquiry into the matter at hand and answers to outstanding questions.

It can no longer be good enough for reporters to be chasing after Cabinet ministers, hoping to be tossed a bone in response to important questions on issues of national import. Properly constituted Parliamentary hearings – done via amendments to the Standing Orders if necessary – would improve accountability and show some respect to the people of Jamaica.

Source: RJR News

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