In the land of extempore, policy decisions are fashioned on the spot. The latest is the proposed $410 million, payable at $10 million apiece to Members of the House of Representatives (MPs), for constituency purposes. It follows still unjustified decisions to pay $10 million to Minister of Finance Larry Howai, upon his voluntary early retirement from his CEO's job, and a $2.5 million payout to Dwayne Gibbs and Jack Ewatski, upon their voluntary resignation. At some time, when we stop consider what killed good governance, rest assured that Government by extempore, vaps and vai-ki-vai, would be prime suspects.
It is clear that even after criticising the PNM's use of special purpose State entities, the Partnership Government has left all these enterprises in place, and now wants to add another layer of deviance to the machinery for handouts, giving MPs an additional $10 million to play with.
This $410 million fund will be beset by the usual issues: poor documentation; favouritism, lack of transparency and corruption. One key question is the extent to which this fund will be used for religious events and places of worship; denominational schools; NGOs fronting for partisan political action groups; scholarships to individuals; private medical emergencies; and community organisations which lack the discipline and paperwork of good governance.
Nothing is typical of the arbitrariness of Government policy like this fund. In part, it is a three-fold confession by Government that first, the billions allocated annually for use by a small island of 1.3 million people, does not reach the intended targets. That second, it is unable to figure out how big government and small government can work together to deliver on both national and community projects. And that third, this is another desperate act from a Government which promised the moon and the stars, but cannot get past the mundane matters of potholes and drains.
In his 2011/2012 Budget statement, a public policy document approved by the Cabinet, then Minister of Finance Dookeran never mentioned this multi-million dollar fund for MPs and no subsequent discussion led us to this point of needing the fund. Its proposed creation is therefore recent, unexpected and ill-conceived. Apart from why we need it in the first place, with so much already committed through the Ministries and local government, there are compelling arguments against putting more money into the hands of politicians.
In the first place, this fund assumes that the needs of constituencies are equal. But four constituencies, each with significant marine interests, make up half the country. These do not benefit, like smaller city constituencies from the overlap of well-resourced municipal bodies, and the close attention of big government. They also do not benefit from the job opportunities in urban constituencies. The bulk of their challenges are therefore produced by size, logistics, lack of proximity to jobs and distance from the decision-making centres. The equally divided fund will ignore these realities.
Next, there are the obvious governance issues. According to the report of the Auditor General (AG) for 2011, MPs can barely account for what is currently their responsibility. The report red-flags the allocations for the operation and refurbishment of constituency offices: lack of personal data forms for employees; absence of appropriate signatures; payments in excess of approved amounts; and failure to follow Central Tenders Board (CTB) directives.
Those who suggest that legislation and oversight of the fund by Parliament will somehow make it less susceptible to the usual problems are dreamers. For one, the AG's report suggests that Parliament has trouble with its own business. And the experience with the standing committees of Parliament which oversee State Enterprises and public bodies, provide evidence that Parliament, in its current structure, cannot and more importantly, will not, provide the oversight required.
And for those who suggest that the $410 million fund is required to cover community and other emergencies or contingencies, there is a fund called the Contingencies Fund. In the creation of a structure for spending, monitoring and accountability, the framers of the Exchequer and Audit Act contemplated that there will be emergencies and circumstances in which funds were not approved for certain expenditures. For that purpose a Contingencies Fund was established and the fund, of which $49 million was accessed in 2010, now stands at $100 million. If Cabinet can quickly huddle and approve million-dollar payouts, then surely Cabinet can quickly deal with a national or community disaster through the Contingencies Fund.
What it boils down to is that this $410 million fund is another layer of potential corruption and abuse. Even where there are check, balances and findings of breach, there are no consequences in a public sector and quasi-public-sector functioning with a patchwork of conflicting policy, political directives, Cabinet minutes and other Government machinations which lack the vigour of statute and its enforceability.
This $410 million gimmick is as arbitrary as the so far unjustified payouts to Minister Howai and Messrs. Gibbs and Ewatski. Called upon to justify, it was amusing to see politicians construct explanations like papier mâché: intriguing at first, but vulnerable to the smallest amount of pressure. This Government has redefined the terms, "voluntary early retirement, and, "voluntary resignation". Like Minister Howai's payout, there was no obligation in law for the payout to Gibbs and Ewatski. So, if the contract buyout was not an inducement, pre-voluntary resignation or hush money post facto, then how else can it be justified? The $410 million is just a taller pile of inducements and hush money.
These political formulations for moving public funds into private hands outside the oversight of a serious Parliament, must be paid for at some point, and must be accounted for. Unfortunately, the country leaves the accounting exercise for the political platform and many times, history has shown that it is left for too late.
In the meantime we can promote ourselves as the masters of vaps and vai-ki-vai. Sans humanité!
(For Trevor Phillips and Richard Sirjoo)
• Clarence Rambharat is an
attorney and a university lecturer