THE collective groan that greeted the Government’s announcement of a Commission of Enquiry into the State’s acquisition of private lands for the San Fernando to Point Fortin Highway was the sound of national despair over the monumental waste of taxpayers’ money in yet another useless enquiry.
Useless, that is, unless one counts the handsome fees paid out to lawyers as something of national value.
That the Rowley administration of all administrations would reach for the tired strategy of a commission of enquiry was unexpected. This, after all, is a Government which claimed to be so concerned about the State’s expenditure on legal fees that it was prepared to curb public access to the Freedom of Information Act as a money-saving measure.
In this case, however, while cost may be the priority issue for concerned citizens, it may be ancillary to the Government’s purpose. After all, the country is on the cusp of a general election campaign. If the Government were intent on looking after the State’s interest in the case of the land acquisitions, the far more effective response would have been to build civil and, where appropriate, criminal cases against suspected offenders. Unlike a commission of enquiry, the courts have far greater powers to compel witnesses and to deliver judgment and mete out punishment. However, going to court would require the Government to have built solid cases against suspected offenders and to subject itself to a timeline scheduled by the Judiciary. By contrast, a Government-appointed commission of enquiry can get going as soon as the Government sets the required conditions in place.
After that, the public can expect to be treated to the usual spectacle of witnesses bussin’ one mark or another and the refusal of key witnesses to provide meaningful testimony or even to participate.
Unlike most other CoEs, the enquiry into the highway land transactions is highly political, given that one of its mandates is to investigate the role of the Ministerial Oversight Committee, chaired by then-prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar and nine of her senior cabinet ministers. It doesn’t require supernatural powers to predict the theatrical spectacle that this enquiry will become when it makes its appearance in the middle of an election campaign, fully-clothed in judicial gravitas. Platform rhetoric could hardly compete.
Electioneering considerations aside, the more compelling case against this CoE is the waste of taxpayers’ money that it represents at a time when the country is seriously strapped for cash. While the Government praises itself on the economy, the population’s reality is that of a tightening financial squeeze by the State through cutbacks in expenditure, non-payment of bills, retrenchment of staff, non-renewal of employment contracts, closure of operations and so on.
This is no time to throw good money after an enquiry which the country knows from experience will lead to yet another dead-end of plenty heat but no light. If the Government has evidence of wrong-doing in the acquisition of land for the highway extension, it should take its case where it belongs and where justice can be properly served—which is the courts of T&T.