Sunday, February 18, 2018

Beyond the drama


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I am glad that Dr Kublalsingh has ended his fast. I pray that there are no long-term deleterious effects to his health. But now that it is over and the dramatis personae have exited the stage it is appropriate to ask the question as to just what has been the real achievement of the spectacle the country has been forced to watch these past three weeks.

The answer, for Dr Kublalsingh and his Re-Route Movement, is not hard to find. They have achieved much. In the first place the theatre of the hunger strike has certainly served to revive the waning fortunes of the movement. Whether, in the end, they get what they have been striving for -- a re-routing of the Debe/Mon Desir section of the highway—remains to be seen. It is to be noted that both the Government spokespersons and Dr Kublalsingh have stated they are not bound to accept the report of the JCC committee.

For Dr Kublalsingh there has certainly been great achievement. He has, for many people, established his reputation as a brave and courageous folk-hero who was prepared to put his life on the line for what he believed in and there can be little doubt that his political credentials have been greatly enhanced. There is little doubt as well that the JCC, and by extension other NGOs, have burnished their credentials as powerful and objective voices in civil society.

But we do have to pose the question as to how and to what extent the drama has benefited the country as a whole. There are those who have claimed that the need for transparency and accountability in public affairs has been vindicated since the Government is now forced to give up all the documents requested.

The fact is that any such claim is little more than wishful thinking. The real issue of the Point Fortin highway was never the Debe/Mon Desir route but the question of the ability of the executive to allocate to this project some $7 billion of taxpayers' money without a compulsory process requiring the Government to engage in a comprehensive public ventilation of all the issues and ramifications involved in the project before a single dollar was spent.

Such a process would have required the Government to justify the feasibility of the project in terms first, of its intrinsic costs and benefits as well as in terms of its place on the priority list vis a vis other national requirements for the allocation of such huge sums. Within the context of such a process the Re-Route Movement would have had ample opportunity to voice and argue its concerns about the Debe/Mon Desir section.

Unfortunately at the end of the drama we are no closer to such a system of transparency and accountability that we ever were. Indeed, one consequence of the drama is that it has served to suck all the air out of a proper discussion of the issues of accountability and transparency with respect to this highway project. Instead Dr Kublalsingh and his actions have become the focus of debate, to the exclusion of almost everything else leaving little room for any clear thinking on how we might prevent such a debacle the next time around.

That the consequences of our failure to invest our time and energy in establishing a robust process of information and consultation for any major project to be undertaken with taxpayers' money, whether this is spent upfront or at the end, can be enormously costly to the country as can be seen from the outcome of the World GTL project undertaken by Petrotrin.

Readers would have recently seen the reports that Petrotrin had won its case against World GTL and the arbitration panel had ordered World GTL to transfer 9,398,211 common shares of WGTL Trinidad to Petrotrin; ordering WGTL to transfer additional common shares of WGTL Trinidad to Petrotrin as compensation for interest accrued on the unpaid over-contribution advances and ordering WGTL to pay Petrotrin's legal costs totalling $14,588,875.

The Attorney General was quick to tout this judgement as representing "yet another legal milestone achievement under the leadership of the People's Partnership administration". What the Attorney General did not say was that this judgement left Petrotrin (and the country) owning 95 per cent of the shares of a plant which cost the taxpayers $2.9 billion and which does not work, has never worked, will never work, and is fit only, according to the same Attorney General speaking on another occasion, to be sold as scrap.

The former executive chairman of Petrotrin under the Manning administration, Malcolm Jones emerged from his self-imposed silence to claim credit for sending the matter to arbitration. He stated that "The Attorney General goes around and tries to give the impression that it was his government that took this matter to arbitration when it was started under my leadership at Petrotrin. "It is my board that decided to go the way of arbitration…"

But what is even more interesting was Mr Jones's justification for the project in the first place. He explained the project was initiated by Petrotrin which was seeking to produce low sulphur diesel fuel, which is used in many of the higher end markets. He said the concept was a sound one and questioned whether the company would have been able to borrow money from the banks to fund it if the project was not sound.

So that as far as Mr Jones is concerned the banks are the arbiter of the soundness of a project, which is palpable nonsense since the loan given to Petrotrin is guaranteed by the government of the country which is all that the banks are concerned with. It was left to current Petrotrin president, Khalid Hassanali, to put it all in perspective when he stated that, "the end result of the investment, brokered four years ago, was that it has not performed. It failed."

If the Point Fortin Highway project and the World GTL project underscore anything it is the need for us to put in place a mandatory process of public review and discussion for any major project using taxpayers' money. Such a process should fittingly take place under the aegis of a parliamentary committee chaired by an Independent Senator. Any and all interested parties would be entitled to appear before the committee to give their input.

Clearly such a process would be time-consuming and cannot be applicable to all government projects. But for all projects over a certain estimated cost (say, TT$1 billion) it should be mandated. We may, through such a process, not only save a lot of money, but we may even save ourselves the drama of another hunger strike.

• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on

politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean