What are the underlying commercial arrangements in relation to our State-owned hotels? Is there any reason to think that these arrangements operate to our benefit, or is there genuine cause for concern?
My efforts to sift the evidence are ongoing in the face of this carefully crafted confusion.
Hyatt Regency is reputedly the most successful of the three State-owned hotels, so one would imagine any government would be eager to share news of those good results. The total Public Money invested in Hyatt Regency is $854M to date and that hotel opened in January 2008, so what return has the State earned on that investment? Certain limited tax and performance details for those hotels emerged after I started in 2016 to question the widespread unawareness of the underlying commercial arrangements in our State-owned hotels. I am not querying those taxation or profit details, indeed how could anyone, in the absence of audits or tax transparency?
This series on T&T’s State-owned hotels has shown the lack of transparency and accountability which is all too common in the other State-owned enterprises. These hotels are some of the largest Public Private Partnerships in which our Public Money is invested, so these are important in this era of declining energy revenues.
This article will examine the prospects for privatisation of those PPPs and make the link to the Tobago Sandals MoU.
Privatisations fit readily within the ambit of the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Property Act.
In this period of ongoing budget deficits, it is likely that apart from ‘downsizing’, the government will have to consider disposing of various assets to raise cash and reduce its expenditure. That was the underlying rationale for the significant staff cuts at TSTT and the closure/restructuring of PETROTRIN.
In the previous article, I dismantled the false narrative as to the satisfactory ‘Underlying Commercial Arrangements‘ for our State-owned hotels. To do so, I used the official records of the Parliament and its Joint Select Committees. Those records actually tell this sorry story, but it is possible to rely upon the sheer mass of material to effectively mask reality.
The defenders of these rotten arrangements are unable to rebut the official record, so some have now taken to claiming that the accounts do exist and that I should admit my errors. Well I tell you.
In between the political loyalists who have a unique way with facts and the very shortage of those facts, one needs to establish certain cardinal points if we are to make sense of all this Carefully Crafted Confusion.
So here are my cardinal points to understand this puzzle –
Capital Expenditure is all ours – every cent is our Public Money;
Repairs and Maintenance – Ditto;
Returns to Private Sector – These are obviously at or above target rates, since both Hilton and Hyatt have persisted in their POS operations. If the returns were below target, those operators would have exited, which is what Hilton International did in Tobago in 2008;
Returns to Public Sector – Unknown – since there is no commitment to accountability or transparency, despite the periodic claims to the contrary from various high-ranking officials;
Private Sector Audited Accounts – We can be sure that those exist at the Private Sector level and are made available in a timely manner to the shareholders and stakeholders of those companies. No Chief in that arena could survive a failure to produce audited accounts in the required manner – that would be grounds for instant dismissal, for cause and without compensation. Of course there is no way a Private Sector Chief could ever refuse to provide those records to its shareholders and stakeholders;
Public Sector Audited Accounts – These are never available, for whatever reason. The Public Sector Chiefs routinely fail to produce these records and even when formal requests are made via the Freedom of Information Act, those are refused. No Chief in that Public Sector arena has ever been removed or disciplined for their flagrant failure/refusal to account;
The "Big Lie" is a propaganda technique referred to by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf, where a "colossal untruth" is stated and repeated as if it must be true, in order to influence a discussion in a direction that takes the lie for granted, rather than critically questioning it
The concerted attempts to sell the Tobago Sandals project were driven by high-level Public Officials who repeatedly assured the public that the existing arrangements for the three State-owned hotels were working satisfactorily. So much so that we should be pleased that the existing arrangements were to be adopted for the new project. The two main promoters were PM, Dr Keith Rowley and the Minister in the Office of the PM, Stuart Young.
Of course, we now know, due to the unplanned publication of that Tobago Sandals MoU, what were the terms and conditions on which the State intended to engage that project. No other hotelier had ever had a deal like that.
But there is a deeper series of official conversations on these existing State-owned hotels which need to be spotlighted so that a better view can be had as to ‘Who is Who and What is What’.
Last week’s article outlined the research I have been conducting, with the support of my colleagues from Disclosure Today, into the ‘Underlying Commercial Arrangements‘ of the State-owned hotels in this country. Those are the decisive details which drive projects of this nature and from which the substantial public benefits ought to flow.
Details of the unhelpful responses from the various agencies with whom we engaged via the Freedom of Information Act only went to show that the actual conduct of these large-scale public private partnerships were virtually opposite to the repeated statements about openness and having nothing to hide. The Ministry of Finance was the only public authority to give a prompt and clear response.
“The leading learning from which we have drawn serious lessons is Lord Sharman’s 2001 Report to the British Parliament ‘Holding to Account‘, which was a thorough examination of the definition, role and need for control of ‘Public Money‘. We expanded on Sharman’s definition of ‘Public Money‘ so as to capture the full range of possibilities, but we have accepted his key finding as to the requirement that ‘Public Money‘ is to be managed to a higher standard of Accountability and Transparency than Private Money – see 2.23 on pg 15. The contemporary, best-practice position in respect of the management of and accountability of Public Money being that the private sector rules are the bare minimum.”
This proposed large-scale investment would require significant sums of Public Money to be committed to the project. That commitment would be via direct investment or lease rentals; tax/duty concessions and expensive externalities such as improvements in the water/sewerage and electricity services or the expansion of the Crown Point Airport facilities. Continue reading “Property Matters – Tobago Sandals part three”→
This Season of Reflection closes with yet another Sankofa Moment in which I will contemplate our past efforts so as to better understand our future. This huge project is being promoted, at the highest levels, by highly-optimistic and quite ambiguous statements.
The entire effort is based on notions of government having nothing to hide and the huge benefits to be derived from this project, albeit on rickety estimates. My colleagues and I have been engaged in a research program on these very issues for the last year. Our preliminary results pose a serious challenge to the notion of there being nothing to hide. In my view nothing could be further from the truth, that is how serious this is.
The three largest hotels in our country are State-owned – Trinidad Hilton & Conference Centre; Hyatt Regency and Magdalena Grand – with the hotels operated via Management Agreements. Our formal attempts to obtain information were met with a type of evasion and unresponsibility which was staggering. It reminded me of the infamous ‘Code of Silence‘ which belies the CL Financial bailout fiasco. No room for surprise there, after all, ours is a small country. As one of my confidantes often quips – It is like an Eleventh Commandment – ‘Thou shalt not be found out!‘ Continue reading “Property Matters – Tobago Sandals part two”→