Business Page   Breakdown in accountability

Sunday, October 9th, 2005

  

Introduction:

There is yet another breach by the country's Finance Minister of one of the showpieces of the government's boast of accountability and transparency which are the edifice of the rule of law and good governance. This columnist has lamented ad nauseam the incidence of such breaches and, for statements made by him on accountability issues, has been sued by the President who formally maintains responsibility for the international side of the Ministry of Finance and many believe for many of its more critical domestic functions as well.

One of the centerpieces of this government's commitment to good governance including accountability is the passage of the Financial Management and Account-ability Act 2003, whose objectives include proper accounting for public monies and "other matters connected with or incidental to the transparent and efficient management of the finances of Guyana."

There is nothing wrong with the government wanting to take full credit for this commendable piece of legislation, and it is understandable that it should do so, even if it was an imposition of the international financial institutions rather than the product of genuine commitment to good governance. But surely even in the absence of such commitment any government - no matter how secure and secured its electoral mandate - would at a minimum be concerned about any appearance of blatant disregard for the laws of the land and the projection of incompetence.

Generous IDB:

The sum of $6.5 B borrowed from the ever generous IDB to finance a project to support the act would have been high even if we were starting a financial system from scratch. Given that there has been a system in existence for decades that number is not only excessive but beyond our budgetary capability. In his 2005 budget speech Finance Minister Kowlessar reported that the act became "fully operational in 2004" yet this same Minister seems quite unconcerned or embarrassed at his failure to discharge his responsibilities and duties under the act. These include:

1. Regular reports on the progress of the execution of the annual budget.

2. Section 67 (1) requires the Minister to present to the National Assembly within sixty days after the end of the first half-year of each fiscal year a report on the year-to-date execution of the annual budget and the prospects for the remainder of that fiscal year. Sixty days ended at August and it is now October but yet not a word.

Section 67 (2) provides that the mid-year report shall include:

(a) an update on the current macroeconomic and fiscal situation, a revised economic outlook for the remainder of the fiscal year, and a statement of the projected impact that these trends are likely to have on the annual budget for the current fiscal year;

(b) a comparison report on the out-turned current and capital expenditures and revenues with the estimates originally approved by the National Assembly with explanations of any significant variances; and

(c) a list of major fiscal risks for the remainder of the fiscal year, together with likely policy responses that the government proposes to take to meet the expected circumstances.

3. Under section 73 (3), the Minister is required to deliver the consolidated financial statement to the Auditor General for audit no later than April 30 following the end of the fiscal year. If he is unable to do so he is required to provide the National Assembly with a statement as to the reason why he is unable to.

Rule of law:

If a taxpayer fails to file his tax returns by that same April 30 he is subject to an immediate penalty, but apparently the law becomes very permissive and flexible in relation to ministers of the government. The rule of law to which our constitution commits us is about equality before the eyes of the law but when citizens are subject to penalties not similarly applicable to those in and with power the whole concept loses its meaning.

And this is not the only failure by this Minister. Five years after the Guyana Revenue Authority has been in existence and despite several reminders, the Minister has failed to table a single annual report. He has ministerial responsibility for the Statistical Bureau but here again he is derelict.

It would have been very useful if part of the $6.5B borrowed was applied to train the President and his ministers in understanding the concepts of good governance, accountability, transparency and effectiveness and each Minister and his senior staff of the obligations and responsibilities of their respective ministries.

Bad as I think the Minister of Finance is as an administrator, the senior staff of his ministry including the Accountant General cannot be exonerated for their own failures since the task of doing the work falls on them while the Minister takes responsibility for their (in) action.

False assumption:

Part of the problem with any law or discussion on governance is that it assumes a certain degree of competence and effectiveness among those responsible, qualities sadly lacking in too many areas of public administration in this country. The Ministry of Finance is too important to be allowed such latitude of underperformance and should be subject to a rule similar to that applicable to judges who fail to write their judgments - they are subject to disciplinary action.

Of course we need to know where the fault lies but the buck stops at the top, and Messrs Jagdeo and Kowlessar must now accept full responsibility for the many and persistent failures.

The Speaker and the Auditor General:

And staying on the subject of accountability but moving the camera on the Constitution of Guyana we note that Article 223 provides that the Auditor General is the auditor of the public accounts of Guyana and that that term includes the accounts of all central and local government bodies and entities and bodies and entities in which the state has a controlling interest.

The constitution requires the Auditor General to "submit his reports to the Speaker of the National Assembly, who shall cause them to be laid before the National Assembly." It is perhaps just coincidental that prior to the 2001 amendment to the constitution the reports were submitted to the Minister of Finance for submission to the National Assembly and that the amendment was in recognition of the difficulties with Mr. Kowlessar and his predecessor as Minister of Finance, Mr. Jagdeo.

I am satisfied that the GRA is a government body for the purposes of the constitution and that the Auditor General should be submitting his annual report on the GRA without in any way derogating from the requirement under the Revenue Authority Act for the Commissioner General to submit an annual report to the Minister of Finance.

The former is a governance and constitutional issue while the other is an operational matter.

Crisis of accountability:

What we seem to be faced with therefore is a breakdown of accountability and dereliction of duty at several levels and layers in the administration of the country amounting to a crisis of accountability that goes beyond a single functionary or single area. The Speaker holds a critical role in the legislative arm of the state and the public expect him to discharge his duties as vigorously as he castigates those who raise any issue touching even tangentially on his role.

The Auditor General has an equally serious responsibility in the protection of the public funds and is expected to be professional, independent and proactive in the execution of its duties. The enthusiasm with which the office has been discharging its constitutional mandate since the retirement of Anand Goolsarran appears to have waned quite considerably. Authority and independence once ceded are not easy to recover.

Conclusion:

During a public exchange of letters with me earlier this year the Information Liaison to the President was adamant that the government was faithfully adhering to the constitution and the FMAA. He may wish to reconsider that view since even a desk review of the laws may tell a completely different story. It will reveal that basic legal requirements in some very fundamental areas, like preparation of half-year statements and the tabling of the reports by the Auditor General, are blatantly and irresponsibly disregarded with no one being held responsible.

It seems that even after being provided with $6.5B in loan funds alone, Mr Kowlessar is not delivering while the Auditor General is falling short and the Speaker appears to have taken a detached view of it all.

That leaves us with the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which is also a creature of the constitution.

It would be a giant step for our democracy were the PAC or elements of it to hold a press conference to address some of these burning issues lest its silence be interpreted as complicity. It is improper and unlawful for the laws to be disregarded with such impunity and unfair for taxpayers' money to be dealt with in this manner.