Technocrats as Ministers vs. Politicians as Ministers

Since 2014, I had purposed to myself to no longer spend time discussing themes such as “corruption” and “transparency” in government. Fundamentally, I find it to be a virtually pointless exercise. The conversation usually revolves around politicians in office; however, I have long since adopted the views expressed in Hulse, Gordon and Herrera’s “Fixing the System” booklet.

In said publication, written roughly a decade ago and which presents ideas that are by no means “brand new” to the discourse on the need for structural reforms, the authors suggested, among other things, that the members of Cabinet be made up mostly of non-elected officials. Why was such an idea deemed necessary? The fact of the matter is this: while many Belizeans spend much time blaming politicians for the existence of corruption in public affairs, the reality of the matter is that there is a large portion of the electorate who put demands on said politicians to share the “spoils” of their “political victory”.

I will spare you the long drawn out discussion on clientelism and its ills, but shall limit this post to simply say that it is the relationship between the “client” and the “patron” (the voter and political actors) that is the true source of corruption.

Moreover, it would appear that all stakeholders, including the media, have accepted as normal the distribution of ministerial portfolios to area representatives as a type of reward for bringing in the votes. When one looks at the recent conversation regarding former Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega’s removal from the Ministry of Natural Resources, it becomes clear that these portfolios are viewed in this manner. Is that the most efficient approach? The answer, I believe, is self evident.

Therefore, temporarily breaking my two-year moratorium on this topic, it would appear that Prime Minister Barrow does rightly demonstrate more confidence in NON-elected officials’ ability to straighten up ministries, as we all should. His recent Cabinet reshuffle yet again displays this apparent truth, as non-elected Senator Godwin Hulse, one of the authors of the “Fixing the System” publication I alluded to earlier, now becomes the Minister of Police, in the midst of this ongoing “Danny Mason” scandal. Simultaneously, another non-elected figure, Attorney General Vanessa Retreage takes over the Natural Resources portfolio. But, in order for her to take on this post, she must first be sworn in as a senator, thereby, replacing one of the current senators.

The Constitution

Undoubtedly conspicuous is the fact that non-elected officials are not motivated by the same things as their elected counterparts are; moreover, a party leader would be able to fire such non-elected offcials without fearing a weakened position in the Legislature. Therefore, it’s logical to expect “better” performance. However, our constitution [Specifically Section 40(2)] limits any Prime Minister from appointing a minister who is NOT a member of the House of Representatives or the Senate. Therein lies the rub.

The Constitution states: “Appointments to the office of Minister shall be made by the Governor-General, acting in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister, from among members of the House of Representatives and of the Senate”

It is for this reason that I’ve deemed the current nature of the “corruption” conversation to be relatively futile, because we continue to discuss “personalities” and “individuals” as opposed to the requisite systems overhaul.

Consequently, instead of chasing behind politicians from one corruption scandal after the other, in my view, the conversation in the public sphere may get more long-lasting results by looking at possible amendments to Section 40(2) of the Constitution. However, not too long ago, in the heights of the Penner scandal, it was Senator Hulse who commented to the effect that if the media had given the “Fixing the System” call for reform the same degree of attention they gave “Pennergate”, the issue itself may have never emerged. But reform talk isn’t as entertaining.

But is the media at fault? The media falls victim to the same market forces of any business: they have to “sell” what there’s a demand for. Therein lies another rub and the epitomic definition of a “Catch 22” scenario. I think of Al Jazeera America’s demise here too.

In my view, it’s preferable to have a system in which ALL ministers be technocrats as opposed to politicians, but how do you get the majority of the constituents and the electorate to first become aware, then interested, then to desire, and lastly demand such change. As things currently stand, if the media were to put such things as headline news everyday, it’s likely they’d lose viewers/readers’ interest, which would likely translate into revenue loses for said media houses. Although, some would say it’s just a matter of packaging. I won’t deny that there’s truth to that point, except to say that such “packaging” comes with higher operational costs, at least in the earlier phases.

The Long-term Solution

In the end, to achieve mass “buy in” for such reform, there is need for medium- to long-term social marketing efforts that educate the masses of the superior benefits of having such a change. This is where civil society, for example, can come in. Of course, the media could also help with specific shows, columns, editorials or programs that slowly but surely promulgate these views.

It, however, cannot be overnight. The ugly truth is this: some politicians may actually be voted out of power under a system in which they have no ministerial “power” over the country’s resources. Therefore, Prime Minister Barrow and any other party leader will be careful how they approach any such change. Think about it: what would many voters do if they can’t get that scholarship or that “piece of land” from their area representative who no longer sits in Cabinet?

People must first be made to see the benefits of a “cleaner” system in which the executive branch is made up of trained professionals, while politicians stay where they belong: in the legislature. Just thinking out loud.


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