We are now in an interesting space, between the noise of the election campaign and the appointment of some of the most powerful government officials. The new Cabinet was sworn in on Friday 28th May and the appointment of officials to the SPEs and Statutory Corporations is about to take place.
As noted previously, these SPEs are arguably now more powerful than the traditional civil service, in both the scale of their operations and the loose oversight regimes within which they exist.
As I noted in the first part of this article, published on 16th April, our history is that newly-elected governments will select their own candidates to fill these vacancies. Apart from the issues of ritual dismissals which were identified then, there are further points to be made at this stage.
The People’s Partnership has won a resounding electoral victory and it seems that a significant number of voters were voting for a change from the large-scale corruption and bobol which had become commonplace.
There were some precedents set by the last PNM, which were so shocking, even by our elastic standards, that they must be highlighted, so we can ensure they are never repeated.
Even though the People’s Partnership is still in the ‘honeymoon period’, it is timely to set out these precedents for consideration –
- The Spouse factor – Our last PM made local history when he appointed his wife, Hazel Manning, to the Cabinet in 2001. The PM went to pains to list his wife’s qualifications to head the Education Ministry. A few weeks later, he defended his appointment of Howard Chin Lee as Minister of National Security, saying on that occasion that no one needed particular qualifications to serve in his Cabinet. That was bare nepotism, which paved the way for much of what was to follow.
- Shareholdings – Almost everyone was shocked to read in these pages the revelation that the then Minister of Finance, author of a learned work on the ethics of the legal profession, was in fact a shareholder of the CL Financial group, which had been bailed out on sweetheart terms, with no punitive action against any of the main players – see http://www.trinidadandtobagonews.com/blog/?p=997. A Blank Cheque Bailout. What shocked almost no one was the PM’s stout defense of his colleague “I wish to re-affirm the confidence that I had in the Minister of Finance…” or his bizarre insistence that the criticisms of the Minister’s obvious conflict of interest was rooted in a desire, by those opposed to the government, to erect impediments in its way – see http://www.newsday.co.tt/news/0,96934.html.
- Multiple Directorships and Chairmanships – Another bad one was the fact that five (5) Chairmanships of major State-controlled companies were held by a single individual. That has never happened before and it is impossible for any individual, however talented or hardworking, to discharge all those duties properly. Although what I am saying is basic good sense, an entire Cabinet acceded to that level of sheer recklessness. In simple terms of the long-time saying about all of ones eggs in one basket, that situation was a good example of collective irresponsibility on a tragic scale.
- Overlapping of appointments and portfolios – In the case of the so-called Independent Senator, Michael Annisette, we had to endure that appointment at the same time as he held Directorships in 5 State-controlled companies. Of course Annisette’s position was completely implausible and conflicted, which became obvious when he became an outspoken defender of UdeCOTT during the recent revelations. Simply unbelievable, but true – all at the same time.
- Non-accountability of Special Purpose Entities – For example, UDeCOTT has had no audited accounts since the end of 2006 and yet they have enjoyed the PM’s praises, with no censure at all. The peril this creates is that we can end up with SPEs which are totally out-of-control, with borrowings – all ultimately forming part of the State’s indebtedness – which are concealed due to the lack of accounts. That is a truly dangerous place to be and what is worse, the people who oversaw this collapse of normal prudent values and good management principles are unlikely to suffer any penalty or loss. That must change.
- Parliament proper role – Parliament has to be restored as the principal place in which the people’s business is discussed and the one I am thinking about here is the Caribbean Airlines/Air Jamaica deal. That was first announced in January and we were told that there would be no monies invested from Trinidad & Tobago. After much talk about the limits imposed by the confidentiality clause, we learn on 1st May, in the midst of the election campaign, that the deal was signed at a cost of $50M USD – see http://www.usatoday.com/travel/flights/2010-04-30-carribbean-air-jamaica_N.htm. Parliament was never the forum for any proper discussion of this matter, with all its long-term implications yet unrevealed. We need to restore Parliament to its proper place.
- SPE in politics – Yet another new low was hit this election season when Kaisha Ince, CEO of the National Infrastructure Development Company Limited (NIDCO) spoke on the platform of a PNM political meeting on 19th May – see – http://www.trinidadexpress.com/index.pl/nart?id=161672510 or http://www.trinidadexpress.com/index.pl/nart?id=161672478 There have been reports that Ms. Ince has now been dismissed from NIDCO by the new government – see http://www.caribdaily.com/article/296300/pnm-affiliated-ceo-of-nidco-has-been-fired/. It is appalling that the head of a SPE could be on a political platform in the heat of the election battle. What next, I wonder? Will we soon see Permanent Secretaries and Department Heads joining the fray? We need to draw a line here.
Of course, these are all made more painful, by the fact that they are true and also, by the strange position of Jack Warner MP, our new Minister for Works and Transport. As far as I am aware, once one is appointed to serve in Cabinet, which is effectively the highest office, one is obliged to demit all other offices at once. The notions at work here being the general principle that it is impossible to serve two masters and also this instance being one in which the responsibilities are so serious that ones service must be total and dedicated.
Jack Warner has confirmed that he will be keeping his roles as a Vice-President of FIFA, President of CONCACAF and Special Adviser to the Trinidad & Tobago Football Federation. Simply amazing. Of course, I am subject to correction, but it seems to me that this is an absolutely unacceptable situation. It is impossible for Warner to serve two masters and this is not a precedent which should be tolerated at all, at all.
I want change, not exchange – Question is “Can the People’s Partnership deliver that?”