In recent days, the Commission of Inquiry has shone a glaring spotlight on the long-standing need to reform the system through which legislators declare their interests, a task that leaders know full well they should have tackled years ago.
We are gratified to hear the cries for change and other public dialogue that have resulted from the COI hearings in recent days, and we hope the pressure continues long after the inquiry concludes.
It had been no secret that the Register of Interests hasn’t functioned properly since the Register of Interests Act required by the 2007 Constitution came into force in 2008.
For more than a decade, the former registrar of interests rightly made that much very clear. She also frequently pressured legislators to comply with the law, which is designed to discourage conflicts of interest by requiring them to declare their financial and business interests in one place (which unfortunately is not public).
Accordingly, we were disheartened anew to hear legislators past and present admit to the COI that they effectively treated the register as an afterthought, filing their declarations months or years late in an apparent breach of their constitutional duties. (Kudos to Deputy Speaker Neville Smith, who was the only exception).
Meanwhile, the HOA committee that is supposed to enforce the system has met only once, and it has spectacularly failed to carry out its mandate.
As the COI rightly suggested, the entire system is broken, and it needs to be repaired from the ground up.
We were encouraged to hear most legislators concede as much and take responsibility for their failures — even though they shouldn’t have needed the COI to bring the matter to their attention in the first place.
We were similarly glad that many also said the register should be open to the public, as we have argued repeatedly ever since its enabling legislation was passed.
But some legislators also made various excuses. They were busy with other matters, they said, and the register was not a priority. Their attorney also suggested that a lack of institutional capacity exacerbated the problem.
These excuses don’t hold water. Institutional capacity is indeed limited in the VI in some areas, but leaders most certainly can do better, and they should. There is no excuse for their mass failure to properly follow a fairly simple requirement of the Constitution, which is the highest law of the land.
In the wake of the COI, legislators should get serious about filing their declarations on time each year. They also should rush to amend the law, revising areas where it lacks clarity and most importantly opening the register to the public.
If they don’t, residents should insist.
Some residents have argued that the COI was overly pedantic when questioning legislators in recent days, while others have defended its tone. Either way, the COI has performed a valuable service in shedding new light on a troubling governance shortcoming. Now, change must come.