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Still in the dark

By Clarence Rambharat

The highway re-route controversy is not over. Three cursive ministerial signatures may buy the Government critical breathing space, but in what now looks like a national farce, the ministerial letterhead bearing the signatures is the most impressive part of this so-called agreement. In reality, the proposed Joint Consultative Council (JCC) review already appears pretentious.

An Independent Senator should not accept leadership of this ad-hoc group, struck to review decisions of the Executive, State-owned entities (SOEs), and statutory bodies. The contentious highway issues are the responsibility of the Cabinet Oversight Committee on the construction sector, and Cabinet's cop-out by agreement with the JCC emphasises a constitutional problem, while creating a 60-day political solution.

In this case, as chair of one of Parliament's two Joint Select Committees on SOEs, Senator Dr James Armstrong should not intermeddle in the work of the Executive, SOEs and statutory bodies outside of the parliamentary arrangements. He must uphold the separation of powers and insist that the Government is accountable to the public, and that the re-route and wider national concerns highlighted by Dr Kublalsingh's hunger strike be addressed at the source: Cabinet.

Beyond this, the JCC has clearly read too much into this review.

The JCC says it is confident that "these efforts would lead to a resolution of this protracted impasse and would signal a new era of civil society's participation in the national development agenda". In reality, this is the Government confirming that it has learned nothing from either the March 2010 "Report of the Commission of Enquiry into the construction sector" or the November 2010 report of the IDB on the 13-year National Highway Programme.

Between both reports there is enough for the Government to satisfy all the needs of the Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM), Dr Kublalsingh, and anyone else with a question about a public sector project. Throughout its report, the Commission of Enquiry emphasised three things: the need to remove "secrecy" and "arrogance" by bodies performing public functions on behalf of the Government; the need for openness, integrity and transparency; and the need for new public procurement rules. The commission also reasoned that the Cabinet Oversight Committee on the construction industry should, "take on a wider role of establishing a regular dialogue between all sides of the industry and promoting appropriate levels of transparency between different sides of industry and within the public''.

If in a few days the JCC can have access to all documentation relating to the contentious highway segment, but for nearly two years objectors directly impacted could not compel complete disclosure, then the Government has learned nothing from the commission.

In this controversy, the UNC's best and brightest within the People's Partnership could not lift the national debate to the real challenges presented by long-term projects like the $7 billion highway: the problems inherent in our likely cycle of single-term governments; the deepening instability and uncertainly within each term of government; the expensive waste caused by the lack of continuity between changes in government; and, the plague of institutional failure or complete absence of it.

Instead, ministers became bottom-dwellers, fixated on a seemingly insurmountable pile of trivia with no relevance beyond rumshops and culverts. New politics must surely be more cerebral and embracing.

Contrary to the JCC's expectations, nothing in this Government's attitude to the HRM and the hunger strike creates optimism. What in this non-binding press statement convinces the JCC that this Government is about to herald a new era? Did the JCC miss the Prime Minister's command, hours before its meeting with the ministers, that the highway will be built as planned? And, did the organisation also miss the post-agreement stance by Nidco that there will be no complete stoppage of work on the contentious segment, and in any event there was no such commitment given?

The fact is that after 60 days, this review will produce nothing different from previous construction industry and public procurement reports. The Commission of Enquiry already highlighted the absence of openness, transparency and integrity. Are the HRM and Dr Kublalsingh asking for anything different?

To its detriment the proposed review could be viewed as a re-route of Dr Kublalsingh's attention-grabbing fight, and the most cynical will suggest that the Government has entangled the JCC and its unwitting partners in its desperate act of stopping the hunger strike. With the Tobago House of Assembly election weeks away, this hunger strike could never be a good thing for the Partnership.

At the end of 60 days we will not know who are the people being compensated by the State and the quantum of that compensation; the total cost of the compensation and relocation exercises, including all consultant and professional fees; the guidelines for determining which squatters are to be compensated and/or relocated; the way in which those running the process are treating with conflicts of interests; the nature of the procurement process for contractors and other suppliers to the highway project; the awards made to date; the prospective awards; and, the extent to which this project makes use of the recommendations of the Commission of Enquiry and IDB's November 2010 report, with particular regard to openness, transparency, integrity, and procurement.

The irreconcilable nature of Dr Kublalsingh's cause célèbre, and the bureaucratic and pretentious agreement struck by the JCC and the Government make it likely that neither Dr Kublalsingh nor the HRM will tag far along just to perpetuate the façade of a listening Government.

Let's not wait 60 days. This JCC-led review should not re-route attention from overarching governance issues in a $7 billion project.

• Clarence Rambharat is an

attorney and a university lecturer

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