Thursday, February 22, 2018

An error of judgement

PNM leader Keith Rowley, after holding a meeting with Ancel Roget and a delegation from the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU), felt emboldened enough to declare that, with regard to the recent oil spills, Petrotrin had “concocted a story of sabotage to gain public sympathy” and reiterated his call for Energy Minister Kevin Ramnarine to be dismissed.

Now according to newspaper reports the OWTU delegation presented to Dr Rowley a copy of the report prepared by the union entitled “Petrotrin Oil Spill Cover-Up”. The union’s report, it would appear, was based on a “Petrotrin document dated October 11, 2010, where a Sri Lankan engineering expert recommended a number of lines be inspected. One particular line deemed to be high risk was the Sealine No. 10—the very line where the oil spill originated on December 17, 2013’’.

Dr Rowley, quoting from the union’s report, went on to assert that “Petrotrin’s own investigative report into the oil spill incident, dated December 24, 2013, found the spill came from Sealine 10.”

Now since I was not present at the meeting between Dr Rowley and the OWTU delegation I have no idea as to what other additional pieces of evidence the union presented. But if all the bulk of the evidence was that revealed by Dr Rowley then he has displayed a surprising lack of balance and circumspection in charging that Petrotrin had “concocted a story of sabotage to gain public sympathy” .

As far as I remember the last statement made by the company on the issue of sabotage was made by its chairman Lindsay Gillette who, at a press conference on January 2, said, there was “strong evidence” suggesting that two of the 11 oil spills which occurred over the last two weeks were acts of sabotage. However, he said the exact causes of all these spills remain unclear, and under investigation.

Now I hold no brief for Petrotrin. As I stated in this space a few weeks ago the company’s handling of the crisis was abysmal. However 11 oil spills, or even eight oil spills, occurring one after the other is certainly unusual and not a little suspicious.

And a serious opposition leader would have been well within his rights and could be applauded for calling for an independent investigation of the entire episode. But with all due respect to the OWTU, their report on this issue can hardly be considered to be independent. The union is a major stakeholder in Petrotrin with its own interests to protect and assert.

Furthermore, Dr Rowley’s willingness to jump to such conclusions on the basis of the evidence as was presented opens himself and his party to serious charges of complicity and culpability. If the date of the report on the state of the lines was October 2010, then the state of the lines at that time could only have been due to the negligence of the management, board and ministry under the PNM which was in power up until May of that year.

But the problem goes further and in a very real sense points to the core of the political problem we have always faced. Dr Rowley is the Leader of the Opposition. He must, if he is serious, consider himself and be considered as, a prime minister-in-waiting. Such a position carries with it a real responsibility to seek and to safeguard, at all times, the welfare of the country.

Yet our opposition leaders, even those who were once prime ministers, all behave as though they carry no responsibility other than to seek to score political points against the incumbent government.

It is true that this present administration has no clue as to the meaning of the words transparency and accountability and carry on the business of the country as though it were conducting their own personal and private affairs and as though the people of the country have no right to know what is going on.

But it is precisely because the Government behaves like that that the Leader of the Opposition has an obligation to demonstrate to the population an entirely different standard and style of conduct. When both government and opposition abdicate their national responsibilities that is when politics sinks to the level which we see today.

Dr Rowley has an unfortunate tendency to not reflect as much as he ought to. In this instance such reflection might have suggested to him that the evidence presented by the OWTU could only be considered partial and before a prime minister-in-waiting pronounces judgement there is much more he should seek to find out and consider.

The fact is that Petrotrin is a critical institution in the economy. Successive governments have used it for political gamesmanship and as a bottomless source of jobs for friends and family. Now that the viability of the company is in real jeopardy Dr Rowley might well have used the occasion to begin a national dialogue on the future of Petrotrin.

Instead he uses the moment to score cheap and tendentious political points, thereby demonstrating that he is no different from the Government. Somebody should remind Dr Rowley, urgently and vigorously, that the elections are, at the most, 16 months away.

It is time for the raging bull to change its skin.

• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.