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Trinidad Redeeming itself?

By Selwyn Ryan

 To the surprise and relief of many, the chips which fell following the publication of the Report of the LifeSport Audit dropped near the feet of Mr Anil Roberts. 

Mr Roberts had said he would resign if the findings of the audit implicated him negatively. 

Mr Roberts has since resigned, not only from the Cabinet, but also his seat in Parliament as the Member for D’Abadie/O’Meara.

There has been curiosity as to whether Mr Roberts misjudged his political strength, and jumped into his political grave or whether he was pushed or pulled into it by inexplicable forces that were stronger than he was. There was also speculation as to whether the Prime Minister regarded him as a likeable  son and wanted to give him a bligh but was eventually forced to abandon him because he was too cumbersome a political burden for her Government to bear.

There have been many more questions as to why the Prime Minister wanted to save Mr Roberts, assuming she did? Was it because she wanted more scalps to decorate her political crown in the coming encounter in 2015? Was she aware that timing is important in politics, and that she was just waiting for the appropriate opportunity to get rid of him? Was she deliberately amplifying the noise knowing that the public generally and the Congress of the People (COP) in particular, would demand his resignation, and that she could thereafter make herself look like a benevolent matriarch, saving the coalition in the process?  Was Kamla trying to redeem herself or playing a clever hand to make herself look good and mysterious? 

We were once  told by Kamla that whenever she cast her political chips down, they would  be allowed to remain wherever they fell, and that she would deal with them appropriate and fairly. After some uncertainty as to what she would do, she did act appropriately even if not expeditiously.

Most of what follows in the remainder of this column was written before Mr Roberts’ resignation was announced. The column was left largely as it was then because some of it deals with the issue of ministerial responsibility, the meaning of which Mr Roberts challenges. Mr Roberts has quite cynically shifted blame from his shoulders as the minister in charge to the public servants in the ministry. With great hubris and stout defiance, he told the nation that as minister he was not in any way responsible for what occurred and that they should not expect him to resign. He has insisted that he has not done anything wrong and that the scribes have themselves got it wrong.

The doctrine of ministerial responsibility is one of the classic and venerable conventions of the Westminster model. It derives from the famous Crichel Down case enunciated in 1934 by Sir Thomas Dugdale, a UK Cabinet  minister, who vehemently resigned office and took responsibility for acts of misgovernance even though he was not personally culpable.

One could argue that times have changed, and that  rules and conventions necessarily change. Perhaps, in Trinidad and Tobago, it is now a case of devil take the hindmost. It could be argued that some public servants are egregiously delinquent and do not play by the old rules. It might also be argued that the boundaries between the two roles have been altered over time and that the narco-traffickers have to be factored into the equation? Do we see on the horizon the beginnings of a narco-state where outsiders perform functions which were once the responsibility of public  officers or ministers? Whatever the equation, it cannot however be that the burden of blame must rest on the shoulders of the public servants alone and that Mr Roberts must be exempted, claiming that the rules of the Public Service do not apply to him.

One does not know what will be decided if and when these matters are referred to the courts of law, but in my opinion, Mr Roberts is guilty in the courts of lore and of public opinion. He is also constitutionally responsible for much of what took place. His firing was justified. We can hopefully learn a great deal from our experience with the LifeSport Programme, and I applaud the Minister of National Security for his decision to institute audits for some of the programmes which we have on the Ministry’s books. 

Mr Griffith explained that this aim was to ensure that stakeholders secure the outcomes which were due to them within cost and with due effectiveness. It is however important to ensure that the objectives not only include prudent financial management, but also the social goals of the programme. The director of The LifeSport Programme, Mr Cornelius Price, complained that  the audit was “sloppy”. 

I see no real evidence of this. The goal of the audit was to “evaluate the programme’s payment system from its inception to the present”. That goal and scope was a limited one. All that they could legitimately say was that the prices charged for supplies and services were excessive, that proper procuring procedures were largely ignored, that monies were paid for services that were either not delivered nor delivered well, that many participants attended the centres mainly to get the stipends that were being paid, and that there was a great deal of absenteeism, and possible evidence of embezzlement.

In terms of the social benefits that the young blacks were expected to achieve from the LifeSport Programme, we are told little. We were told little except that some of the coordinators and supervisors had criminal records which made them unsuitable as models for the participants, and that some of the latter were involved in criminal behaviour. We were not told much about what was achieved that was of social value, if anything. Neither were we told much about the governance of the programme or about what was needed to get it right in the future. In sum, we still need to better understand how to administer social rehabilitation  programmes such as the one that was recently evaluated. Mr Griffith might want to take a closer  look at what programmes such as Milat and Mypat which are run by the Regiment with limited resources. There seem to be too many social programmes operating independently of each other. 

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