The impending closure of Petrotrin has virtually captured the major part of our national debate in a swift and serious way. Many commentators seem to have taken strong stances in which their loyalties are displayed and there is a distinct lack of the basic facts.
This is no essay on the oil & gas aspects of the Petrotrin closure as those are areas outside my understanding. In this article, I will examine three of the most serious governance issues now emerging as this seemingly-unstoppable process rolls onward.
The issues I will be delving into are:
- the information asymmetry on display here;
- the enhanced offer to workers and finally,
- the issues arising in relation to Petrotrin’s huge land-holdings.
This phrase describes those situations in which parties to a negotiation have a vastly different quantity and quality of information, which commonly leads to grossly unfair outcomes. In the area of anti-corruption studies, Information Asymmetry is viewed as a clear ‘red flag’ denoting an improper situation to be investigated.
Of course, if readers are wondering what is the point being made, it is clear that our public affairs are generally conducted along the lines of gross Information Asymmetry. The current Petrotrin imbroglio being only the most recent episode of the extreme imbalances to which we are becoming inured. Normal, normal, we are being told that the country’s major industrial plant is to be shut down, with the background reports to be released ‘in due course’. I cited the Minister of Energy, Senator Franklin Khan, on that in a previous article.
At this point, having tried to follow the discussion, I am still unclear as to whether Petrotrin is a net earner or a net consumer of USD. Which is it? I have seen some plausible analysis from trade union sources that Petrotrin is indeed a substantial net earner of foreign exchange, which is buttressed by the Finance Minister’s closing points on Petrotrin in 2019 Budget Statement – “…the company…will continue to be a significant earner of foreign exchange, in the vicinity of US$200 M per year, after it completes the transition…” (pg 25).
That leaves me no clearer as to why the entire company has to close, unless this is a union-busting exercise wrapped-up as a corporate re-invention.
If the Government and its appointees at Petrotrin have high-grade advice recommending the proposed course of action, it begs the question. What could be the harm in publishing those Reports?
Holding the critical details and reports within official files is part of our past of poor governance with which we must break.
The PM, together with the Ministers of Finance and Energy, have spent a great deal of time telling us of the background to the high-level decision to close Petrotrin. The shifts and swerves have been stunning – from an unprofitable refinery operation, to a bloated wage-bill, to a profitable Exploration and Production operation which must be kept, to every worker to be dismissed, to the OWTU being offered a first-option to operate the company, to high-grade reports in support of the closure decision but we can’t show you those now, to over-generous offers to the workers to be retrenched.
‘Imbert: severance packages for workers twice industry standard’
That staggering headline was at pg 3 of the Trinidad Express on Wednesday 3rd October 2018. It was a clear illustration of how far we have gone down this slippery slope.
Minister of Finance Imbert was quoted as saying at a post-budget news conference that –
“…Severance packages for thousands of soon-to-be retrenched Petrotrin workers have been set at twice the industry’s standards…Imbert said the impending severance benefits were very ‘generous’ having been negotiated that way by the union (OWTU)…”
I am scandalized at this proposed generosity with our scarce Public Money. It is wrong to overpay corrupt contractors and we want to protest at excessive claims in the land acquisition process and we are alarmed at the profits creamed by financiers at Petrotrin and elsewhere in the State’s affairs. If those things are wrong and I maintain that they are, how could it ever be right for a Minister of Finance to openly declare that he is going to pay twice the going rate? The Minister of Finance, if he were quoted correctly would be clearly in breach of his Oath of Office, which requires him to –
Form of Oath (affirmation) for
A Minister or Parliamentary Secretary
I, A.B.. do swear by………… (solemnly affirm) that I will bear true faith and allegiance to Trinidad and Tobago and will uphold the Constitution and the law, that I will conscientiously, impartially and to the best of my ability discharge my duties as ………… and do right to all manner of people without fear or favour, affection or ill will.
(emphases are mine)
The Minister’s reported actions clearly show a tremendous degree of favor and affection. This is resembling Open Bribery in which the OWTU and its members are now being recruited to some cause. I want no part of that cause and if this report is accurate, the offer from the Minister of Finance is just plain wrong. Wrong like a Crix Biscuit!
The Petrotrin Lands
According to the Joint Select Committee Report on Petrotrin, the company has 1.1 million acres of State property in its portfolio, 22% of which are onshore. That is a total of 242,000 acres of land within Petrotrin’s portfolio and which would be subject to transfer during any restructuring process.
As a context, please note that the Caroni lands were made available upon the closure of that loss-loss-making State Enterprise on 1st August 2003 – its total land area was estimated at that time to be of the order of 76,000 acres.
Fifteen years on, the Caroni land redistribution is marked by controversy and a shortage of detailed information. Have all the entitlements of the former Caroni workers been satisfied? If not, what are the reasons and how wide is the gap between reality and the entitlement? What other Caroni land has been allocated? To which organizations and on what terms? Why is there no convenient portal via which all these questions can be answered? After all, our country is tiny, so what is the problem?
The decisive point here is that the mismanagement of the Caroni land redistribution and our failure to learn will return to haunt us as we advance into the Petrotrin lands with no lessons learnt, except the wrong ones.