“…As Minister of Finance I was very much concerned with the decision to introduce a Central Tenders Board and take away the power to award tenders from elected representatives of local government bodies who enjoyed the privilege under existing legislation. That unsound arrangement, bad in principle, was further vitiated by the tendency of local government councillors not to award tenders to the lowest bidder….”
— Eric Williams, Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister. (London: André Deutsch, 1969), 250.
This week I juxtapose the delays in implementing the Public Procurement system and the intended amendments declared by Finance Minister Imbert, against the history, so that the wider issue can be understood. Minister Imbert is no outlier, he can be located as the current manifestation of the PNM’s deep and historic unease with modern arrangements for Accountability.
The establishment of the Central Tenders Board in 1961 was a high-water mark set by the first PNM administration in the ongoing struggle to ensure ‘morality in Public Affairs’. Since that 1961 Act, which took five years to implement, there has been a push against those legal provisions by successive PNM administrations, uneven and not always successful, but always in the same dismantling direction.
One needs to excavate actual episodes, so that the accountability arc can be seen, beyond the smoke and mirrors.
In 1978, the amendment of the said CTB Act created six exemptions via S20a–
- Government to Government Arrangements (G2G);
- State-owned Enterprises;
- the purchase of books for official purposes;
- the Protective Services.
When one considers the amendments, motivated at the time by the rush to development and the time-limits imposed by the CTB’s processes, it explains the subsequent proliferation of State-owned Enterprises and Government to Government Arrangements.
In May 2009, we witnessed an attempt by the then PNM government to amend the Integrity in Public Life Act (IPLA) so that people reporting breaches of that Act would have been forced to give their names and addresses. That arrangement would have given even greater protection to corrupt officials, since virtually no-one would want to make a report. Of course people are strongly encouraged to report ‘normal’ crime like rape, robbery, murder and so on – further encouragement is offered by allowing them to make anonymous reports via 800-TIPS, for example. Those proposals to amend the IPLA would have encouraged corrupt behaviour by greatly reducing the number of reports. That Bill was piloted by then Attorney-General, Bridgid Annisette-George. The proposals were strongly opposed in the Parliament and in the wider society, eventually being withdrawn.
On 7 June 2019, the current Attorney General, Faris Al-Rawi, announced proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) on the basis that the current arrangements were costing the State too much money in terms of the legal fees refunded to successful applicants for official information. The AG’s rationale was that applicants were effectively milking the State in cynical legal actions. Millions of dollars were being spent in this manner, which placed a serious burden on our scarce Public Money, so the proposal was to have all intended refusals vetted by the AG’s office. That would have entailed more time for official review, so the time-limit for FoIA responses was proposed to be increased from 30 days to 180 days.
Of course, there were strong objections, including my own on these pages, with the high-point being the Media Association of T&T’s conference at Hotel Normandie on Saturday, 15 June 2019. Those proposals were eventually shelved for further consideration and/or consultation. It was really striking to me that the AG’s presentations did not include any examples of the most expensive or longest cases .
The lack of evidence was compensated for by the blatant appeal to the widespread public perception that the previous PP administration had grossly overspent on legal fees during the tenure of then AG, Anand Ramlogan, SC. Based on the official reports, I share the belief that the previous administration has really serious questions to answer on the levels of legal fees paid. That said, the AG’s presentation made me wonder, as the failure and/or refusal to refer to available data is a clear ‘red flag’.
Now, in January 2020, the current AG has filed an appeal on 29 grounds against the High Court ruling that sections of the Sedition Act are unconstitutional. The Sedition Act is a colonial-era law introduced to curtail the rights of free speech citizens and the press should enjoy within a Republic. The AG has declared his intention to pursue this matter to the Privy Council if that is necessary. It seems to me that such a cause has little chance of success in those quarters, given the current acceptance of free speech, especially in the UK with frequent disrespectful cartoons and sarcastic critiques of powerful figures up to and including the very Royal Family.
Currently, we are now witness to the government’s intention to change the new Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Property Act so as to limit its applicability to G2G and PPPs.
As shown in the epigraph, the original PNM leadership was determined to put arrangements in place to ensure proper standards of governance and accountability. Times change and so do we, that much is clear from our history. The current leadership is now boldly declaring that the largest arrangements – G2G and PPPs – are to be placed outside of independent control.
The rising tide of the independence movement was fed by the conviction that we could govern ourselves and had the basic rights to do so. We are now at the place where our elected leaders can confidently declare that they alone ought to have decision-making powers over our large-scale dealings.
One can only wonder where we would be in a generation, if we continue in this manner.