Discussion is revolving around the country’s earnings from our energy resources and the likely size of the next year’s budget, expected to be delivered in early October.
Given the fact that our energy resources are reported to be declining in both quantity and value, it is very important that we make best use of that stream of resources to both sustain the existing arrangements and create a new series of industries to replace those declining earnings.
In my view, our focus in this critical transitional period has to be on making best use of those limited tax dollars. Although that is an objective on which we can assume broad consensus, there seems to me to be far too little discussion on the ways in which that can be achieved.
When we consider that most of the capital expenditure in the country takes place via the State and its agencies, it is clear that proper control of that expenditure is key to making the transition for our society. The other parts of State expenditure are recurrent, such as salaries and rents.
The growth of corruption in State expenditure is a clear danger to good order and national development. White-Collar crime, as it is sometimes called, is a growth industry because there is almost zero chance of being detected or punished and huge rewards.
The danger to good order is the fact that merit has a declining role in the way State spending decisions are made. It is clear that other factors have become dominant – things like friends, family and political affiliation are now well-understood to be the ingredients of success in getting work from the State. That is the case for all political administrations so far in our country, but it must change if we are to make the transition to a sustainable economy in which different values and income sources take the lead.
The budget of the present financial year is the largest in our country’s history and it is true that the major part of that expenditure could be classed as exceptional items, having to deal with settling large debts of State Enterprises and the huge CL Financial bailout payments. The point here is that those huge expenses arose in situations with a distinct lack of transparency and accountability, from the lack of accounts at UDECOTT and HDC to the naked corruption of the CL Financial bailout, there is a pattern.
If there is no transparency and no accountability, there will be corruption and that is inescapable.
Expenditure of Public money – Accountability – Transparency = CORRUPTION
Public Procurement refers to any expenditure or receipt of public money, which is money due to, or ultimately payable by, the State. That definition covers all the Ministries and State agencies as well as modern arrangements such as BOLT, PPP, concessions and so on. In the PP’s first budget, there were disclosed plans to spend almost $14.0Bn in the capital program of the Ministries and State Agencies. We need a proper Public Procurement system to manage these vast sums of money.
It is for this reason that the People’s Partnership commitment to implementing a new and effective Public Procurement system is to be welcomed. The JCC and its partners – the Chamber of Commerce, the Manufacturers’ Association and the Transparency Institute – have submitted a draft Bill for consideration of the Joint Select Committee established by Parliament.
Finance Minister Winston Dookeran made good on the PP’s pre-election promise to lay in Parliament the new Public Procurement proposals within one month of the election.
The level of political support for this initiative has been encouraging, but there is the issue of priorities to confront in this matter.
I am referring to the fact that the second part of the PP commitment to a new and effective Public Procurement system was that it was to have taken effect on the anniversary of the election.
That target has been missed and the work of the Joint Select Committee has been preserved so that it can proceed when the Parliament re-opens at the Waterfront.
The challenge we have to confront is the race to implement public projects in a manner which reminds me of the phrase I had coined for the last administration – ‘Project Fever’, like a new strain of political dengue.
The need to stimulate economic activity is something everyone appreciates and the perceived competition between Ministers is becoming part of the new reality. Provided that there are effective local content provisions, the more projects the country is doing, means more work for our professionals, contractors, workforce and suppliers. No one would argue against an increase in economic activity.
The problem is that, in the absence of proper controls, those short-term imperatives can lead directly to the dire long-term consequences which I referred to earlier. The State now has to spend immense sums to clear up debts which arose during an earlier spending frenzy, with operatives, who would have all said at the time that this or that project was essential.
These frenzied moments of activity are the correct place for the application of real leadership in terms of the national priorities, particularly in relation to the issue of expenditure. I am calling on Finance Minister Dookeran to make this issue of controlling expenditure a number-one priority in this budget.
Given that the ongoing flow of projects is strong and constant, a proposed program would look like this –
- New Public Procurement policy – Minister Dookeran must make this new system an absolute priority with a firm commitment to have the new framework made law by the end of this session of Parliament, which is in December. That is an indispensable part of building a new economy going forward and it would definitely be a manifestation of New Politics.
- Embargo new projects – In relation to projects which are not yet at the stage of Requests for Proposals, there needs to be an embargo until the new Public Procurement system is in place. There will be appeals that the struggle is for economic stimulus over proper process, but those must be dismissed. There is no way you can get to the right place after making a wrong turn. No way. Everybody knows that. Expediency taking precedence over principle has cost our country enormously, both in cash terms and lost opportunity.
- Projects ‘in the pipeline’ – Projects which are already at the stage of Requests for Proposals must conform with the principles underlying the new Public Procurement proposals – Transparency, Accountability and Value for Money.
Without proper control over expenditure, we will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis. We need to stabilize the economy and restore the importance of merit in our public decision-making.