Monday, February 19, 2018

Oppose this bill!

Reginald Dumas logo26

Mark Fraser

Part 2

Riley having replied to Tewarie, the latter now replied to Riley’s reply. It was getting a bit incestuous, but the serial responses were at least helping us to see the differences between the two sides.

Or so we thought, because Tewarie (who at this juncture was referring to Riley’s Private Sector/Civil Society Group [PSCSG] and not to Afra Raymond’s Joint Consultative Council [JCC], which had claimed his earlier attention) then executed a back flip which took the breath away. He said: “We” (that is, the government and the PSCSG) “are on the same page as far as making it difficult for corruption to take place in the realm of public procurement is concerned.”

That must be a most extraordinary page, seeing that the day before, in answer to Tewarie’s previous assertion that the Public Procurement Bill was “very clear (and) focused” and corruption-unfriendly, Riley had dismissed the Bill as in fact facilitating corruption and as “a waste of time”. I’m again fortified in the conviction I’ve held for many years, that politicians never tell untruths, they merely constantly discover new truths.

In what I assume was an attempt to explain the government’s decision to exempt government-to-government agreements from the scope of the Bill— a decision strongly opposed by the JCC and the PSCSG as opening the floodgates to corruption by inundation—Tewarie also said this: “There is also the issue that governments do have the right to negotiate with one another. There are such things as international agreements and governments negotiating terms and conditions.” Fine, but what does this have to do with the principles of good governance—transparency, integrity and so on—that the Bill cites in its explanatory note? What does it have to do with the nature and content of the negotiations as distinct from the right to negotiate?

Tewarie continued: “The key issue is how to balance interests so, at the end of the day, citizens are in the know, countries get the best deal and the private sector in the receiving country also gets a fair share of the spoils.” But how are citizens to be “in the know” and “countries (to) get the best deal” if government-to-government agreements are to be kept secret? And the word “spoils” is an interesting one. My dictionary defines it as “goods stolen or taken forcibly from a person or place.” A cynic—not I, perish the thought— might detect a Freudian slip.

Tewarie was next reported as saying that while a country needs to manage the development of its local industry, it cannot operate as if it lives in isolation. “We also have,” he said, “to manage international trade and investments.” Agreed, but what exactly was the point being made? What is the relevance of our not “operat(ing) in isolation” to the exemption of government-to-government agreements from our oversight and input? Was Tewarie trying to say that if government A—or better, these days, government C—with which T&T has been negotiating wants X, it must have X? At the expense of the T&T taxpayer? Without a word from that taxpayer or his or her representatives? But that would be nonsense, and dangerous nonsense to boot. And yet, and yet.

Late last June Tewarie addressed the Parliament on the subject of the Penal hospital project, in which the Canadian firm SNC-Lavalin was then involved. He said that “(in) government-to-government contracts ... (the) company (to execute the contract) is identified from (and by) the country with which you are negotiating. The decisions about (this) company do not reside in your hands.”

In an Express article of July 9 I voiced my shock at this statement, and went on: “Thank God, Roodal Moonilal said a few days later that the government did have the option of vetoing SNC-Lavalin if it so wished.” It so wished. And a good thing, too, because the number of high officials of that company charged with corruption would have made a mockery of Tewarie’s declared “good governance” campaign if we had in fact, like good and compliant colonials, accepted without murmur the recommendation of the Canadian Commercial Corporation to use the company.

Some may see Tewarie’s position now as entirely consistent with his remarks of last June. Whether so or not, it is to my mind grievously flawed. I’m certain it doesn’t represent a failure of intellect on his part; he is far too bright a man for that. There must be some other factor or factors influencing him. He won’t say, of course; he might even reject the proposition that such factors exist. I hope he understands, though, that, especially in this pre-election las’ lap, and given the scathing opinions of the government’s probity and performance that are being so widely expressed, his own credibility and that of the government are increasingly under the microscope.

I haven’t yet mentioned the role of Transparency International. Many potential investors these days pay close heed to the views and findings of that organisation. The government may wish to note that exempting so lucrative a fount of funds as government-to-government agreements from parliamentary and other examination is almost certain to have a negative impact on the “international investments” of which Tewarie speaks.

In its present incarnation, with its exemption of government-to-government agreements from public scrutiny, the Public Procurement Bill will, not may, cause corruption on a scale never before experienced in this country—and I’m told things are bad enough already. The population must oppose it. This is not a matter of political loyalties and of zandolees rushing for their party hole. After all, the influence of political investors is such that I do not expect the PNM, if in office, to behave any differently, whatever its protestations and promises in opposition.

• Reginald Dumas is a former head of the Public Service.

—Part 1 appeared on Sunday