By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The bribery probe involving the Defence Force’s $150m fleet “speaks volumes” about the need for Parliament to take the anti-corruption fight “as seriously as the country”, governance reformers urged yesterday.
Matt Aubry, the Organisation for Responsible Governance’s (ORG) executive director, told Tribune Business that the Dutch investigation into whether such payments were made provided “further proof” of why his group and others were pushing so strongly for the government to move forward with a package of stalled anti-graft Bills.
While praising the Ministry of Finance for releasing the draft Public Procurement Bill 2019 for consultation, Mr Aubry reiterated that it was “critical” for the government to move the Integrity Commission Bill and the creation of an ombudsman’s post through Parliament as rapidly as possible.
Suggesting that politicians may be out of step with how the Bahamian people view this issue, he pointed to an ongoing ORG survey where 65 percent of respondents ranked government corruption in The Bahamas as “extremely serious”. Another 26 percent rated it as “serious”, meaning that more than nine out of every ten persons view it as a major problem.
Some 74 percent of replies voiced optimism that corruption in The Bahamas can be “substantially reduced”, while 83 percent agreed that ordinary Bahamians “can make a difference” in the battle against practices that the prime minister himself estimated cost this nation’s economy several hundred million dollars annually.
Warning that perception was everything, Mr Aubry said incidents such as the Defence Force claims could undermine the progress The Bahamas has made in “changing” its image when it came to corruption - especially where the private sector and civil society were concerned.
Reiterating that nothing had been proven in relation to the Defence Force contract, he told Tribune Business: “This goes back to our most recent history and is further proof of why we’ve been advocating so strongly for anti-corruption legislation like the Integrity Commission Bill.
“This speaks volumes to the need for the upcoming Public Procurement Bill, and would involve the Proceeds of Crime Act - legislation that has been passed and needs to be passed... Parliament needs to take it as seriously as the rest of the country sees it.”
The proposed Integrity Commission Bill would repeal and replace the current Public Disclosure Committee, establishing a comprehensive and independent anti-corruption body to reform anti-corruption policy, investigate issues of corruption, administer public disclosure and educate the public.
Mr Aubry yesterday said the Ombudsman Bill, which would create a post to resolve disputes the public has with government agencies, also needed to be moved forward. He added that ORG’s survey, conducted to coincide with the imminent launch of its National Integrity Campaign, had also found that 78.8 percent of respondents did not how to report corruption to the authorities or file a complaint.
“We don’t have clear procedures to report corruption, and don’t have mechanisms to understand how corruption is addressed and vetted,” Mr Aubry told Tribune Business. “The process of how these things come forward and are evaluated locally is not effective. People don’t know how to report corruption and don’t believe that reporting it will result in any great change.”
He added that the “consequences and repercussions” if caught needed to be obvious, and said: “Even the perception of corruption has an impact. It affects the country’s international reputation. For businesses that want to be foreign direct investors, and want to come here, it doesn’t speak well to the environment they will encounter here, which on many fronts has improved considerably .
“More importantly, it erodes the trust locally, the public’s trust in government because of VAT increases and duty that continues to be high in various areas. The ordinary citizen queries what they’re paying for when they see instances like this. These are allegations, but they all have an impact in this area both locally and internationally.
“We’re really excited to see the Procurement Bill go forward, but the Integrity Commission Bill and Ombudsman’s Bill are necessary steps to root out the potential for this culture of corruption to grow greater.”
Mr Aubry explained that corrupt practices undermined the effectiveness of the Government’s procurement system as well as requiring that lost monies “be made up for” elsewhere via increased and new taxes.
“If there are vendors committed to integrity it doesn’t serve them in what they’re doing,” he explained. “It fosters a pay-to-play environment and that’s not something that we want to promote for The Bahamas.
“I think we’re changing that, and see this [the Defence Force claims] as detrimental to what we’re trying to achieve as a nation. It’s concerning. Ultimately, let’s get in front of this as a nation. Let’s use the Government, civil society, the media, the clergy to promote a culture of integrity, and promote what we do is much more important than who we are.”