Publication: Sunday Times Issued: Date: 2004-05-16 Reporter: Brendan Boyle

Controversial Smith Vows to Fight Corruption



Sunday Times

Date 2004-05-16


Brendan Boyle

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The man widely known for implementing moves to frustrate the parliamentary inquiry into arms deal corruption, Vincent Smith, has promised to be even-handed and rigorous in his new job of monitoring public expenditure.

Smith says Parliament and not the ANC is the appropriate forum to call errant ministers, legislators and public representatives to account on state spending.

Smith, the ruling party's controversial nominee to head the committee that monitors the government's use of tax money, was responding to opposition criticism of his nomination this week.

The opposition Democratic Alliance and Inkatha Freedom Party both condemned the ANC's decision to take control of the Ad Hoc Committee on Public Accounts, which will do the work of the former Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), until a review of Parliament's committee structure is completed later this year.

In a promise his critics are likely to remember, Smith has vowed that nothing would be swept under the carpet under his leadership of the committee.

"If it involves public money or the duties of a public representative in his official capacity, then he must be brought to book by Parliament," Smith said ahead of his near-certain endorsement next week as chairman of the committee.

His nomination a week ago completed an ANC takeover of statutory oversight bodies and overturned a custom in most Commonwealth countries of allowing an opposition party to head parliamentary committees on public accounts.

"This is deeply damaging to South Africa's international standing," said the DA's finance spokesman, Raenette Taljaard. "This is not the international best practice that is observed by most Commonwealth countries."

Several international country risk assessments count opposition control of public accounts committees as a plus, which could be taken into account by rating agencies that determine the relative value of national debt.

Smith, who was an accountant in the private and public sectors before coming to Parliament in 1999, promised to be even-handed and rigorous in the monitoring of public expenditure and the activities of ministers, legislators and senior public servants.

"There is no way that I would sacrifice the good of the country for the benefit of an individual who has found himself on the wrong side of the law or government regulations. If he has gone out of line in his capacity as a government minister or public official then I believe Parliament is the correct place to deal with it," he said.

"The public Parliamentary processes must be exhausted, regardless of whether the ANC launches a parallel investigation."

Smith promised that his 17-member committee, on which the ANC will hold 10 seats, would lay bare the failures of ministers, departments and officials and he asked to be judged on his performance.

Critics said he had already failed that test when he succeeded ANC economist Andrew Feinstein as chairman of the ANC study group on Scopa and used the party's majority to dilute the investigation of alleged corruption and fraud in the country's massive military rearmament programme, now valued at R48.7-billion. Feinstein quit the committee in protest against the party's management of the arms deal enquiry.

"Every strategic move devised to frustrate the arms deal inquiry was implemented by Vincent Smith," Taljaard said. "He is no fool; not an idiot by any means. But he does not have the strength or the vision to go against the views of the executive."

Former Scopa chief Gavin Woods of the IFP said about 70% of Commonwealth countries allowed an opposition member to chair their public accounts committees. In Australia, the best-known exception to the Commonwealth trend, there was growing public debate about the ruling party's control of public accounts review.

Smith said giving control of the committee to the opposition could be to hand them a weapon to use against the government. "Sometimes, there is a sense that the opposition would use Scopa to trip up the executive. Our role is to guide and advise the executive, not to trip them up."

With acknowledgements to Brendan Boyle and the Sunday Times.