Our first draft of this editorial praised legislators for passing a bill last month to finally make the Register of Interests public, thereby promoting the sort of government transparency that will help the media and wider public hold elected leaders accountable.
Then we got bad news. Governor John Rankin said on Aug. 10 that before passing the bill the House of Assembly amended it in closed-door committee to “significantly restrict public access” to the register.
If his account is accurate, the National Unity Government appears to be trying to pull off a bait and switch. During public debate on the bill, legislators said it would open the register to the public. They didn’t explain details about any access restrictions, and the amended version — which the governor said he received Aug. 10 — has not yet been made public.
In our view, any access restrictions are unacceptable. The register should be easily available to all members of the public who wish to view it. In fact, it should be posted online. Moreover, members of the public should be able to do what they like with the information contained in the register — including publish it. Any restrictions otherwise would defeat the purpose.
Properly opening the register to the public is a no-brainer that should have been included in the 2006 law that established the register in the first place — as auditors, the media and other watchdogs have argued for more than a decade. But the step has been vigorously avoided by successive governments that have shown an intense reluctance ever to put themselves under the microscope.
The COI report hinted at why: Nearly every legislator who came to office in recent years violated the Register of Interests Act by not declaring their interests on time, and successive governments failed to take the necessary steps even to create the register.
Properly opening the register will discourage such behaviour by allowing closer scrutiny from the media and the wider public alike.
Moving forward, the NUG should do whatever is needed to open the register without restrictions. Then it should make good on its promise to hold public consultations about requiring senior public officers to register their interests as well — as would have been required under a previous version of the bill that was withdrawn.
We fervently hope that the reported amendments are not a sign that the NUG is getting derailed from its mission to carry out the well-conceived plans in the reform agenda agreed with the United Kingdom after the Commission of Inquiry.
The bill, after all, was passed last month amid an atmosphere of grumbling from a few legislators and others who appear intent on casting doubt on the urgent need for the promised reforms.
Take government backbencher Mark Vanterpool, who quixotically suggested recently that Cabinet members in his own government are UK “puppets.” The remark — which he subsequently retracted — was unreasonable. If he doesn’t support the government’s reform proposals, he should clearly explain why not.
Similarly vague grumblings have come from other backbenchers and opposition members. They should knock it off until they are prepared to offer clear criticisms of the reform proposals and propose viable alternatives for the way forward.
For our part, we frankly don’t care who is influencing the government on this matter as long as it sticks to its promised list of long-needed reforms, which are clearly in the public’s best interest. In that regard, it is hard to think of a clearer example than properly opening the Register of Interests.
The move is the exactly the sort of real progress that the territory so desperately needs in order to extract itself from the swamp of poor governance that led to the COI in the first place.
The premier and his ministers should ignore the grumblers and fully open the register, then continue their progress toward enacting the many other promised reforms.
If they do, the territory will benefit greatly. If they play games and try to avoid real reform, no one wins.