Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Ash Wednesday questions


Mark Fraser

 It’s Carnival Tuesday. Did your band go past No. 1 Alexandra, the empty building at the corner of Alexandra Street and Tragarete Road? The first four days of March cost us $100,000 for the privilege to keep that building empty. A day’s rent could buy two motorised wheelchairs. Five days rent could pay a police constable or school teacher for a year. So what are we paying for, air storage or Santa’s Workshop? Tell me tomorrow, after Carnival. 

Come tomorrow, whether it is the $37 million already wasted on the empty building, Justice Ventour’s one-day judicial appointment, Minister Howai’s $10 million payment, or the long range patrol vessel, the common thread is that details are hard to come by. 

The Local Government Ministry is paying over $25,000 a day to rent the empty building, but that does not make the minister wiser with the details. Minister Coudray had plenty time to get the facts in answer to MP Alicia Hospedales’ question in the Lower House on empty buildings. But, on Valentine’s Day the minister had a partial answer and because MP Hospedales did not ask why 1A Alexandra was paid for but empty, Minister Coudray did not have a reason. 

Now, the annual rental for 1A Alexandra is not an expense Minister Coudray, her Permanent Secretary or ministry accountants can miss. The rental cost is 13 per cent of the ministry’s budget for goods and services in 2014. Last year it was 16 per cent, so that any public officer properly discharging their fiduciary duties must have been pained by this wastage. In fact, the ministry slashed its budget estimates for goods and services for 2014 by $8.5 million which suggests that maybe someone planned to rid the ministry of this misfeasance. It continues. But, somehow, the minister cannot say why.  

1A Alexandra is a mystery. This deal was flagged by the Auditor General on two occasions. The reports are with the Parliament and his Excellency, the head of the Executive. The President has a responsibility to consult with the Prime Minister, and this $37 million wastage must command more of his Excellency’s time than the giraffe earmarked for death in Denmark.   

Now, think about all the questions His Excellency provoked with Justice Ventour’s recent reappointment to the bench to complete work unfinished at his retirement in 2012. Justice Ventour’s resignation from the Integrity Commission, reappointment to the judiciary for a day, and reappointment to the Commission has attracted attention and controversy, but for the wrong reason. The chain of events is a consequence, but not the problem. Without the one-day appointment, how else would justice be served on the litigants involved in Justice Ventour’s unfinished work? Why was Justice Ventour allowed to retire from the judiciary in 2012 with his work incomplete? Why did he accept a position on the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC), knowing his judicial work was unfinished? And, why did he accept an appointment to the Integrity Commission, also knowing that his work with the judiciary was unfinished?   

And more questions: did the judiciary say anything when he retired in 2012, then serve on 17 CRC consultations, and then go on the Integrity Commission, while his judicial work was unfinished? Did the judiciary communicate with Justice Ventour on the unfinished judgments? Did the judiciary communicate with the Ministry of Legal Affairs, the Attorney General, or his Excellency on the unfinished work, when the CRC appointment became known? What steps were being taken to get these judgments delivered? Was Justice Ventour actively working on his unfinished judgments as he served on the CRC, and then on the Integrity Commission? Is that possibility acceptable? What transpired between His Excellency, the Chief Justice, the Integrity Commission, and the Judicial and Legal Services Commission (JLSC)?  

Vital information is missing. We may question the roles of the President and others. This sequence was clearly sanctioned – whether by rubberstamp or deliberate judgment – by his Excellency, the JLSC, the Chief Justice, and the Integrity Commission. Neither set-play nor sloppiness has a place at the highest level of decision-making in the country, but when you peel the skin on this banana, you often get a preconceived notion of rightness because of the players and not the principles. Without answers, who knows, but we must first ask the right questions.  

So where do we turn? To the PM who whimsically pleads for a multi-million dollar long range patrol vessel, without having a short term plan for national security and public safety? Do we turn to the Attorney General? Do we turn to the Minister of Finance? The Minister of Finance has his hands full. He has launched an investigation into a multi-million dollar First Citizens’ share purchase by a bank employee under the employee share purchase option, but acknowledges the purchase was likely within the rules. And, in any event the Minister of Finance still does not believe taxpayers are entitled to full disclosure of his $10 million ex-gratia payment, as he exited the same State-controlled bank to assume the minister’s role. Like the share purchase, the minister’s ex-gratia payment was likely above board, but did taxpayers have the benefit of an investigation or full disclosure? 

All these matters are likely dead. The Auditor General would flag 1A Alexandra in the upcoming annual report. He would identify highlight millions in rental payments without leases; millions in salary payments without contracts; and millions in payments without supporting documentation. What would we say and what would we do? It’s Carnival Tuesday, so tell us tomorrow.     

(For Terrence, my brother and Kenny, my brother-in-law. Happy Birthday)

• Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and a university lecturer