In November 2011, with the obvious $287 million question before it, Parliament's Joint Select Committee (JSC) on ministries, statutory authorities and State enterprises (Group 1) was more concerned about whether breadfruit could replace Irish potatoes in school lunches. Annually, the National Schools Dietary Services Ltd (NSDS) pays out an average of $4 million to each of 72 suppliers of meals. Its presentation to the JSC had not mentioned board governance and oversight, and despite an annual payout of 87 per cent of its budget to these caterers, there was no discussion on procurement ethics, supplier management, and corporate oversight. Breadfruit and potatoes were more important.
Repeatedly, we see a lack of attention to what is important. Last week I noted the budget statement's omission of the word "governance". And when it happens at that level, a lack of attention to, and urgency on, what is important permeates the chain, afflicting the ministries, State-owned enterprises (SOEs) and statutory bodies. And so the Minister of Finance is not alone.
More scandals, revelations and embarrassments lie ahead. This pessimistic view is in part based on the fact that the JSC is made up of Government, Opposition and Independent MPs. It is normal for the Government and Opposition to blame each other for the various ailments in the society, but the JSC provides an opportunity for the Opposition and Independent MPs to challenge the workings of the Government's appointees to various statutory authorities and SOEs, like the NSDS which oversees the provision of meals to school children.
The JSC missed the opportunity to ask more searching questions of the NSDS, and focus the company on the need for its revised organisation to show where responsibility lies for good governance, procurement ethics and accountability when it pays out $287 million annually to 72 suppliers. And in its lack of diligence, the JSC was merely being consistent.
The end result of these free passes given by the persons who provide high-level oversight to SOEs went on display at the press conference called by the chairman and chief executive officer of the Lake Asphalt Co., (LATT). (Full disclosure: a relative is a board member of LATT and we have not discussed this matter).
Four days before, the MP for La Brea Fitzgerald Jeffrey alleged that LATT's chairman had, "authorised the board and the CEO to stop importing the hardboard from Pegasus in Brazil and instead purchase the hardboard from a company called Fastec that is owned by a close relative of another minister in Government".
The MP made other allegations about LATT, including the possible sale of the company, and the setting up of operations in Canada by a former LATT official to import refined asphalt products into that lucrative market. Having called the press conference, at which most people would assume LATT intended to answer the MP's various allegations, the chairman and CEO put on an incredible show of amateurism and avoidance.
First, the key question was always going to be about the allegation of a relationship between LATT officials and a minister. That allegation was dismissed by the chairman. Second, the identity of the principals of the new supplier was bound to be an issue, but neither the chairman nor the CEO could provide that information, suggesting that a request under the Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation be made. Throughout their display of lack of information, the company's two top officials ignored the fact that the principals were already named by the media and, in any event, that information was publicly available.
Third, when pressed by the media with questions on the tendering process, evaluation and the basics of the award to the successful company, the chairman offered two answers: that the information could be accessed through the FOI process and in any event, it was "not my responsibility to look into these things".
This display by LATT's chairman and CEO suggests a few things. First, that the chairman does not understand the role and responsibilities of the board of a State-owned enterprise, and in particular the chairman. The responsibility for the information which the media sought in response to allegations made by the MP, lies firstly with the company's management, and when management fails to provide that information in defence of the company, management becomes accountable to the board. At the press conference the dividing line between board and management was never evident.
Second, when a matter involves allegations of impropriety at the level of a minister of government and senior company officials, it falls to the board to ensure that management answers the allegations promptly, factually, fully and fairly.
And third, the impossible scenario of a CEO being unable, four days after the story became public knowledge, to provide the details to the media at a press conference called by the company, suggests again that the CEO does not understand his role in relation to the governance of the State-owned enterprise, the national angst over this type of allegations of impropriety at State-owned entities, and the concerns over the unsuitability for office of various State board members and executive management.
In the Section 34 scandal, Parliament demonstrated the weaknesses in the discharge of its core function of lawmaking, but its strength in the habit of finger-pointing. And in the workings of its various standing committees, and its lack of curiosity on reports from the Ombudsman, Auditor General, Integrity Commission and Elections and Boundaries Commission, Parliament demonstrates its inadequacy as a body to deal with the things which rest on its plate. The outcome, like Section 34, is a defeat for democracy's crown jewel.
Amateurism, evasiveness, avoidance and arrogance are behaviours permeating the State, and the problems have grown bigger than potatoes and breadfruit.
• Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and a university lecturer