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OPPOSE THIS BILL! Pt. 1

By Reginald Dumas

 The Public Procurement Bill—or, to give its full title, The Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Property Bill, 2014—has finally reached the Parliament. Its explanatory note says that it “seeks to provide for public procurement and the disposal of public property in accordance with the principles of good governance, namely accountability, integrity, transparency, and value for money...” 

These are principles that are fully supported by the Joint Consultative Council (JCC) and the Private Sector/Civil Society Group (PSCSG) which for some considerable time now have been negotiating with the government on the matter. So if all the parties agree, what problem could there be?

Well, there might be agreement on declared principles but not on operational details. The JCC and the PSCSG have made it clear that they cannot accept clause 7(2) of the Bill, which exempts from the Bill’s scope agreements between T&T and another State or other States or an international financial institution. They argue that such exemption opens a broad highway to corruption; it’s as if the 1982 Ballah Report on the dangers and drawbacks of government-to-government arrangements isn’t still relevant. But who knows? Perhaps corruption died in the early 1980s. News of its demise hasn’t yet reached me, though.

In a Sunday Guardian interview published on April 20, the Minister responsible for piloting the Bill through Parliament, Dr Bhoe Tewarie, said that the JCC was “claiming, not without justification, that (such) arrangements are prone to corruption...” The phrase “prone to” means “likely or liable to suffer from, do or experience something, typically something regrettable or unwelcome.” Therefore if the responsible Minister knows this about government-to-government arrangements, why, I wonder, is the government so single-mindedly pursuing an exemption that is bound, not likely, to lead to something as regrettable and unwelcome as massive corruption? Do you have any ideas on this?   

Tewarie went on in his interview: “(W)e are concerned (about corruption), which is why we are bringing the...Bill.” This obviously suggests that the Bill deals effectively with that issue. Indeed, he pats the government on the back, calling the Bill “very clear, very focused ... (W)e have gotten it right.” But he is still prepared to have further talks with the JCC, “once they are willing to listen to reason.” The government’s “reason”, I imagine.

Let’s sum up at this point. The government has introduced a Bill for public procurement. Such procurement over the years will be worth billions of taxpayers’ dollars which will greatly enrich a fortunate few. The government insists, however, that this procurement will be carried out on corruption-resistant, good governance principles of accountability, integrity, transparency, and value for money. It nonetheless wants to exempt from the ambit of the legislation the very government-to-government and similar arrangements it says are “prone to corruption”. And it asks us to believe that despite this, it has got things right and that such exemption, and the inevitable corruption to follow, are and will be in consonance with the language and spirit of the good governance principles it has outlined. What is prone to corruption is not prone to corruption. If you can follow that, go to the head of the class. 

Tewarie also said that “government-to-government arrangements need to be...transparent as anything else. For instance, if government enters into such a system, I think (it) should basically present to Parliament what it means in terms of this engagement.” On the arguments he has presented, his understanding of “transparency” is deficient. But present what when? Before or after the deal is signed? What does “enters into” mean? In these days of a trumpeted “national conversation”, will the public have the right to comment on the presentation with a view to changes? 

Tewarie wasn’t done. “The average citizen,” he said, “is affected (by the legislation) in the sense that if you have clear, transparent government it means less corruption, if no corruption at all.” I know of no society that is totally corruption-free, but let that pass for now. I accept that transparent government tends to lead to less corruption, but how in the case of this Bill, where a major source of corruption is exempted from scrutiny, can we logically speak of transparency? To the contrary, the present clause 7(2) is enveloped in dense opacity; the corrupt must already be drooling in orgasmic anticipation of its passage.

In an immediate riposte, the chairman of the PSCSG, Winston Riley, offered a short and pithy assessment of the Bill: “Bu’n it,” he advised, sounding like Black Stalin. Far from being “clear and focused”, as Tewarie had asserted, the Bill left procurement by the State and State-owned companies wide open to corruption. “The core issues in any procurement legislation,” Riley continued, “are accountability, transparency and the efficient use of public money.” Explanatory note notwithstanding, he was saying, these issues were conspicuously lacking in the Bill, which, infected by clause 7(2), was “a waste of time.” That clause had to be deleted or redrafted.

Unsurprisingly, Tewarie reacted to Riley’s sentiments. I shall next come to that and related matters.


Martin Daly 

returns next week.                                                                                                                       

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