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Is the PP serious about procurement reform?
In her contribution to the 2013 budget debate, in a presentation delivered on October 10, 2012, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar spent a great deal of time questioning two projects that the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) attempted to implement.
The Prime Minister raised serious, and legitimate, issues relating to transparency and accountability of the THA in seeking to implement BOLT (Build, Own, Lease, Transfer) arrangements for the construction and leasing of the Bacolet aquatic centre and Shirvan administrative complex (also called the Milshirv project).
The two projects, according to the Prime Minister, involved the expenditure commitments of $250 million and $322 million, respectively.
Mrs Persad-Bissessar accused the THA, which is controlled by the party that forms the Opposition in T&T’s national Parliament, of entering into expensive arrangements that favoured private sector developers, ignoring independent advice questioning the prudence of the arrangements, providing misleading information to the public and of accepting proposals from firms without a formal procurement process.
She told Parliament that both of the companies that submitted the proposals for these multi-million dollar contracts had been established within weeks of entering into discussions with the THA.
Breach of law
She also suggested the THA had deliberately hidden an appendix to one of the project documents that outlined the real terms and commitments agreed to by the THA.
That was the speech in which the Prime Minister advised that the two projects should be “halted pending proper clarification and investigation.”
She also directed that both projects be referred to the Attorney General, the DPP and the Integrity Commission to be investigated for any malfeasance and any breach of the law.
In a presentation that involved the holding up in the air of leaked e-mails and documents, the Prime Minister told Parliament that she had asked Minister of Finance Larry Howai to carry out a central audit on the projects.
In concluding her presentation, the Prime Minister said, as recorded and reproduced by Hansard: “Finally, Mr Speaker, my own Government remains committed procurement legislation, because every dollar that is corruptly taken is one less dollar for schoolbooks, for book bags, for food, for clothing, for hospitals, for buses, for every item that we need.
“Therefore, Mr Speaker, we propose to send before the Legislative Review Committee, the report of the joint select committee and, in addition, this document.
“This document has been prepared by the Joint Consultative Council for the construction industry; the T&T Transparency Institute; the T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce, and the T&T Manufacturers Association. This document is a draft bill, 2012—”Draft Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Property Bill, 2012”, which will be sent to the LRC for consideration for the laying of a bill in Parliament for procurement.”
The Prime Minister also said the “illegal”practices (one feels she meant corrupt) associated with public procurement in this country have become “so entrenched that it has been become systemic,”and that the only way to root out these corrupt practices would be to implement “procurement legislation for transparency and accountability in public affairs.”
The speech was the Prime Minister at her oratorical best: concise, forceful, insinuating wrongdoing by the Opposition and setting out clearly what is the Government’s position on a matter that is central to the country’s future development.
Who can argue with Mrs Persad-Bissessar when she says that every dollar that is “corruptly taken”is one less dollar that could have been used for the development of the country?
And who would argue with her when she says that one of the main ways in which this country can mitigate the scourge of corruption would be to implement procurement reforms that provide for independent, non-partisan scrutiny by a statutorily established body of all contracts awarded by the State or by State-owned companies?
But there would be no argument from independent-minded citizens of this country to the suggestion that corruption, or the perception of corruption, remains as pernicious under the People’s Partnership administration as it ever was under the former PNM government.
And there is widespread suspicion that contractors who are favoured by the Government in terms of contracts awarded under this current, weak regime of procurement are also among the biggest contributors to the coffers of political parties in this country—including the constituent members of the People’s Partnership.
That, in effect, is what the furore surrounding the Section 34 debacle was all about.
There is also a suspicion, which may not be as widely held, that while the Government, in general, and the Prime Minister, in particular, talk the talk about procurement reform and new procurement legislation, at the end of the day, it would not be in their political and financial interest to walk that particular walk.
That’s because both political grouping in this country realise that to introduce procurement legislation with teeth would deprive them collectively (and personally, if one is to be brutally frank about it) of funds from actual and potential party financiers who are anxious to use their political connections to drain billions of dollars from the State.
That may account for the fact that even though the People’s Partnership administration laid procurement reform legislation in Parliament in June 2010—in accordance with a 2010 general election manifesto promise—that legislation is yet to see the light of day in terms of parliamentary debate.
As the Prime Minister noted in her October 2012 presentation to Parliament, after the legislation was laid in the House, it was sent to a joint select committee.
And more than two years later, the report of that committee, along with a comprehensive draft bill sponsored by the Joint Consultative Council for the construction industry, is now before the LRC.
That draft bill—which has the official support of the T&T Transparency Institute; the T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce, the T&T Manufacturers Association and other civil society groups—calls for the appointment of a Jamaica-style procurement regulator who would have the right to investigate any and every contract issued by the State or a State agency.
If I am right to be extremely cynical about the ways in which T&T administrations have resisted procurement reform, while continuing to sign the song of how great it is, the reports before the LRC will remain bogged down in much consultation and talk while the Government continues along its merry way of issuing contracts left, right and centre.
If I am wrong, there will be tough, new procurement legislation in place in T&T before the next budget.
We’ll wait and see.
Meanwhile, last month the Government signed an agreement to accept a US$150 million ($964 million) concessional loan from the government of China for the construction of a 215-bed children’s hospital in Preysal without a shred of transparency and with much more attention being paid to the details of the proposed hospital than the details of the loan agreement.
Does it, for example, allow the Government to hire local contractors, labourers, engineers and architects to build the hospital or is the Government locked into hiring a Chinese contractor, who will import hundreds of labourers, project managers and engineers and all manner of equipment that could be sourced locally.
Does the JCC have a position on the continuation of the government-to-government arrangements that have become somewhat discredited by past abuses?
Does the Government have any compunction at all about signing such a loan agreement with China when it was most critical of similar arrangements entered into by the previous administration?
Are there any safeguards in place in this hospital-financing arrangement?
Is there any connection between the Government’s acceptance of this concessional loan and the cancellation of the Alutrint loan agreement?
Don’t many of the same questions that the Prime Minister raised in her October 10, 2012, budget contribution apply to this agreement?
I don’t want this to be misconstrued as an attack on China, which I have visited on three occasions at the invitation of the Chinese government.
While I love China, is it not my responsibility to note the disparity between words and deeds of our local representatives?
Is this Government really serious about procurement reform?
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