It is better for Minister of Finance Larry Howai to answer the questions regarding his $10 million payout from First Citizens Group. The key words of the First Citizens' board's explanation to journalist Anthony Wilson are, "we were not under an obligation to pay, but decided to pay the sum based on precedent and our ability under the Companies Act to make such a payment". The main question is whether the board's decision on the payout was influenced by Howai's proposed appointment as Minister of Finance.
We know the Minister left the security of one job, to take up one in which he is expendable. In those circumstances, the $10 million can be viewed as an incentive, assurance or insurance, for the uncertain world of politics. After all, with three years left for the People's Partnership current term, and Howai not otherwise being available for the next three years, something had to be worked out because the early retirement and Ministerial appointment are inseparable.
In his media statement, Minister Howai says he should be measured by his previous life as a banker. In reality, he will be judged as a politician. If the $10 million is a contractual entitlement, the Minister can say that to the taxpayers who funded it, and now employ him. Or, he can plead sacrifice, national service, and privacy, and forever be known as Minister How-Why, the man with the $10 million questions.
What we know is that in a typical voluntary retirement, the employee requests the premature termination of the employment relationship. Having made that decision, the employee gives up the opportunity to earn a salary up to retirement and must concern himself with pension benefits. It is therefore surprising, that Minister Howai has raised the issue of the sacrifice of remaining years' compensation, in the context of his personal decision to enter politics.
Minister Howai knows how the country feels about money matters. Consider the confusion over the cost of Shaquille O'Neal's "Hoop for Life" endorsement, the source of the payment and the cost of the basketball competition. Two senior Ministers gave conflicting answers and no details. It is to Minister Howai the public will turn for the truth. And, with one Minister insisting on anonymity for the "corporate sponsors" of the Government's basketball plan, Minister Howai must be concerned if his new colleagues broker private money in secrecy, to fund public initiatives.
But before he gets to other people's business, Minister Howai must explain his own payment, which his employer says it was not obligated to pay.
These $10 million questions arise because this is not a private company paying a parting executive, who has opted to take up a paid, political appointment. This is a State-owned company, making a payment to an executive in unprecedented circumstances, the details of which are not publicly known. More importantly, this is a scenario in which the board approving the payment will turn around, and report to the person to whom the payment is made. Further, that person to whom the payment is made will be responsible for policy and other matters relating to the company which is making the payment, including the small matter of the reappointment and tenure of existing board members.
The prospects are salacious, and unfortunately this is not a matter born out of distrust of the new Minister or the First Citizens' board. This comes out of the country's brutal experience of low-life governance; smoke and mirror decision-making and the porous manner in which we conduct the business of the State. To fix that, Minister Howai must provide answers on his payment.
The Minister should have no doubts about the public's view of the task he has accepted. He is thought to be bringing to Government clean hands, insignificant baggage and a clear-cut understanding of good governance. He should not treat legitimate concerns about his First Citizens' payout very lightly.
The fact is that most people would prefer to leave the $10 million payment alone, assured of the Minister's integrity. But when an experienced banker, decides on his own to quit his job, and take up a tenuous political one, you would believe he has covered the risks, principally the risk of losing the position of Minister.
You will also believe that the rules would be followed, so that there is no unevenness in dealing with this early retirement and political appointment, especially when the Minister's new job requires him to stop pervasive risky behaviour. But dealing with the entitlement aspects of Minister Howai's payout creates some problems for, "the respect of truth and impartial judgment", which he requests. There are too many unknowns, like the considerations and deliberations of the bank's board; the precedents and entitlements which guided the bank, and its board; and the questions put to senior counsel.
If he considered it important enough, Minister Howai can answer these questions in the same manner forthright manner he issued his media statement.
And after that, Minister Howai can help the public with the identity of Shaquille O'Neal's anonymous corporate sponsors and the details of the funding issue. In particular, the Minister can identify the sources of funds; and the links, if any, between sponsors, current public officials and existing State contracts or tenders currently open.
And, as the integrity legislation cautions, Minister Howai can say whether Ministers providing anonymity for corporate sponsors of public initiatives, impacts fairness and impartiality; affords undue preferential treatment; and puts public officials in a position where private interests collide with public confidence and trust in integrity.
Whatever he does, Minister Howai has to face reality. He will not be judged by his previous career, nor will he be judged by the way he performs in this one. Instead, he will be judged by our political division; a public wounded by pervasive governance tragedies; and taxpayers, weary of always picking up the tab.
Unfortunately, the Minister will also be judged by the political friends he keeps.
— Clarence Rambharat is a
lawyer and university lecturer