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A BRIDGE TOO FAR by David Walker

posted 13 Sep 2018, 07:48 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 13 Sep 2018, 08:22 ]

David Walker
The writing has been on the wall for a while now. Yet we have done nothing to remove it. With each new financial catastrophe that befalls us the writing becomes clearer, more pronounced. Today, it screams out for attention but is ignored by our leaders leaving us the poor citizens no choice but to rise to the occasion and demand necessary remedial action.

A common thread runs through all our financial failures. In the CLICO matter, the regulators, auditors and Cabinet were asleep at the helm, and that is putting it kindly. For Section 34 likewise, Parliament and the entire legal fraternity was asleep at the wheel. At almost every State Controlled Enterprise, those that run those enterprises along with the stewards at the Integrity in Public Life offices and those in charge of the Freedom of Information Act are practically missing in action. They all appear to have been resting and reflecting for a while now.

Wilfred Espinet, the Chairman at Petrotrin put it very succinctly when he said that the greatest problem and hence contribution to that company’s accumulated problems was political interference. I would add that the Olympian standard of incompetence of those same political interferers has had the effect of amplifying the impact of their interference. That is before I consider the malign impact of probable corrupt practices by those same persons. Corruption thrives in the environment that they have created.

The solution ought to be crystal clear. We should be discussing how we go about removing unnecessary political involvement in the executive and management functions of the State in its financial and other functions. Having identified the root cause of these major and recurring problems, our leaders should be charting a course towards its elimination. Instead we get the usual bickering between our two leading parties, a tactic which has also been identified as part of the problem – distraction. Unfailingly, we are fed political distraction as the medicine to cure our ills until further financial failures occur and we repeat the “remedy”.

While we engage in this ritual distraction, our leaders practice their own ritual so as to make matters even worse. They first identify the problem. In the CLICO case for example, it was interlocking directorships and related party transactions. Their remedy then was to appoint Mr. Gerald Yetming to multiple interlocking chairmanships and Ms. Carolyn John to multiple interlocking directorships. Their solution to a hangover is another drink. So they then proceeded on an orgy of related party transactions that would have made the former directors blush. Needless to say, that lies at the heart of the unexplained mountain of costs in that “rescue”.

In the Petrotrin and other similar disasters emanating from political interference, the proposed solutions all come from the very same political interferers who got us into the mess in the first place. Having asked for union input into the process, Petrotrin management and political overseers then proceeded to studiously ignore the plan put forward by the union in response. There wasn’t even a pretence of engagement through meetings. The union plan may or may not have had merit but if political interference is identified as the problem, is not the consideration of a multitude of voices a key element of the solution?

So here we are, deep in the mire at Petrotrin and being fed “same old same old”. Of course, as usual we’re told that our political masters and mistresses are the only ones with the expertise to solve the problem. Time is of the essence they say, so we must trust them to arrive at the best solution with no room for consultation. History tells us that they are likely to fail again, then they start the cycle all over in a few years’ time when someone else may be “in the saddle”.

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To rub salt into the wound we have the spectacle of a major project unfolding where they’ve gone beyond political interference. In the Sandals acquisition, there isn’t even a pretence of decision making by a Board of Directors or Committee following any prescribed procedures. In this instance our Prime Minister has simply invented a project for himself, and proceeded without as much as a Request for Proposals or specifications for what the country will get in return. We’re being told that it will cost in the order of five hundred million hard to find US dollars.

For me this is a bridge too far. The time has come to stand for what is right and demand some answers. I am not even suggesting that the project be stopped. My first demand is that it not proceed without the consultations that should be mandatory for such a project. My second demand is that the project follow the rules and procedures set forth in the soon to be proclaimed Procurement legislation. Is it that the obscene haste is meant to ensure that this and other major projects are done and dusted before final proclamation?

To start this citizen led process, I have done a great deal of research into the Sandals experience on other islands and will be sharing that with you at a seminar soon. I have invited Mr. Afra Raymond also to present the results of his research into our own T&T experiences with Hilton, Hyatt and Magdalena hotels. None of this information has been publicly disclosed previously and will illuminate the discussion about the Sandals project in new ways. This will for the first time facilitate the type of discussion and consultation we should be afforded in order to avoid the serial financial disasters that we’ve grown accustomed to.

There has also been a great deal of work done on the probable financial outcome of the project. It includes analysis of the current place in the product life cycle for exclusive resorts. Put another way, are we boarding this boat on the return journey? From there we offer projections and risk assessment for a more professional assessment of the project. 

All of this will be presented at the seminar and will cover issues that should be ventilated in the consultation phase so as to arrive at the best decisions for the nation. Where our politicians fail to engage with us, we can show that informed debate is not just possible, but if done professionally and with sincerity will begin to reverse the seemingly unending procession of expensive failed state projects. 

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