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Partnership must learn from NAR mistakes
The People’s Partnership regime must learn from the lessons of the failed National Alliance for Reconstruction administration if it is to complete its first five-year term of office. So advises Dr Carson Charles, former political leader of the party and a NAR minister. The 56-year-old engineer, who is chairman of the National Infrastructure Development Company (Nidco), is crediting Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar for holding the PP team together.
Q: Dr Charles, is the People’s Partnership administration about to go the way of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) government?
A: (Rocking back in his chair and laughing aloud at his Melbourne Street, Port-of-Spain, office Thursday evening) That’s a good one, Clevon. But no. No. The NAR’s case was quite unique and I don’t think we are about to repeat that history. But the PP has to make sure and learn the lessons of the past—of the NAR—and the main lesson is that we really have to keep united, stick together and we have to have higher standards than the PNM.
Is the PP demonstrating this higher standard, given the number of missteps being experienced so far in their tenure?
(Gently stroking his face from the forehead) Well, misstep is a term that has become popular now, eh?
But it is human to make mistakes as we go along and unfortunately all of the mistakes had to do with people saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. But if you look at the actual running of the country it is doing well and there is room for improvement. T&T is taking up speed and if you look at where the country was heading in 2010...
Can you stick a pin there and let us deal with Nidco? What is Nidco and what are your principal areas of business?
OK. The National Infrastructure Development Company Ltd, a special-purpose state enterprise, was created in late 2005.
These entities have been getting some serious criticisms from certain quarters. What makes this company stand out from the rest?
Listen, it is like anything...sure we get criticised, some of which went to my predecessor and in due course I am sure I will get my own share (half-smiling). At the end of the day people will judge you by the outcome of what you have delivered or what you have not delivered. These companies were set up for a special purpose, you can make good use of them but they could be corrupted and they were corrupted in the past. Our business is to make sure we do not corrupt them now.
The main business of Nidco?
Nidco is a servant of the Ministry of Works. Virtually all their major projects are done by this company. It was set up by Government to accelerate government’s programme of development and delivery of infrastructure, especially major projects, in a drive to get us to a more developed state. Great emphasis is being placed on highways...the transport sector.
Nidco did have a rapid-rail project but we don’t have it these days, and at some point in time Government will decide on some form of rail that makes sense.
Why did this administration dump the original rapid rail-project?
Because it just did not make sense and let me give you some facts about it. This project was costing this country US$7 billion, not counting acquisition, supervision, project management costs and all the other costs to add to those. Who in their right mind would think that Trinidad and Tobago, which has never even done a project costing $7 billion (TT) is going to take up a project of US$7 billion? It was a fiction that cost us $500 million (TT) which has gone down the drain.
You know why? Because they did not do a feasibility study. Somebody went to some part of the world, saw rapid rail in service and he decided he must have one here, too. These guys awarded a contract and I heard Rowley saying the government at the time was about to invite tenders after they had already awarded the contract to a foreign consortium to design, build, operate and maintain.
What is very depressing Clevon, is that after the design was done without doing any feasibility study they then presented the government with that hefty pricing bill which this government could not afford.
Half a billion dollars just went down the drain and no one can be held accountable?
I think the population held the last administration accountable by voting them out of office. The idea of having a rapid rail is not a bad idea but that particular project was madness and we cannot go back to that. What must be done is what should have been done in the first place—a feasibility study which would tell us from the outset, among other salient points, what the cost of building the project would have been.
What is the latest on the controversial Point Fortin Highway and is the Re-Route protest standing in the way of the project moving forward rapidly?
No. They have their right to protest and we are proceeding with the first phase of the project. And if you want an idea of the amount of projects Nidco is currently dealing with at this time: (leafing through a file in his desk) we have the highways, a lot of drainage projects, retaining walls, we are preparing for the Mamoral Dam and so on.
Dr Charles, one of the criticisms against these companies is the apparent unsatisfactory procurement process...
That hasn’t got anything to do with the companies, it has to do with people who operate the system. We have a tendency to throw out the baby with the bath; when something goes wrong we want to change the system, we want constitutional reform, we want a new law. The whole Parliament makes a mistake, okay? The Prime Minister and others have apologised. Excellent. Very good.
Where are you going with this?
It was a big mistake, it was human error but you cannot fix that with a constitutional amendment. It is people who are entrusted with certain responsibility who are liable to make mistakes and when this happens the people responsible admit it and they pay attention in the future to what they are doing—including the Opposition Leader.
He can’t be serious because he made a mistake, too; he was sleeping on the job. Under our system you are the watchdog. So you failed not only your own supporters but you failed the country, too. So you have to apologise, too. It is either you did not read it or did not have your advisers look at it; you just voted on it. How can you be seriously thinking that we cannot get an apology from you?
Everybody should accept the responsibility for what happened and apologise to the country and pay more attention in the future to what comes to the Parliament.
Earlier, Dr Charles, you were saying that the country was heading down the wrong path in 2010...
Yes. (Frowning) if we cast our minds back you would recall we were going down a crazy road. We were spending money which we did not have, building tall buildings that up to this date we still cannot occupy them, you know? We don’t have the money to finish those buildings.
Are you suggesting no proper planning went into the construction of these edifices, particularly on the waterfront?
It was a dream somebody had, who thought we would have money forever and we could become a developed country by going all over the world seeing tall buildings and you want to have them here, too. The same way they thought we would not be a developed country if we didn’t have a rapid-rail system, so you bring a team of foreigners to build and oversee the project. Not a single local engineer was involved in that project.
You said the PP should learn from the lessons of the past?
I think we all should learn from our past, and of course the people would want to see the Government avoid some of the errors they are seeing and I would not comment on whether they are taking long to learn or not. A lot of effort has been made to hold the team together and we all should credit the Prime Minister and whoever she has helping her in keeping the team together.
You are saying the biggest failure of the NAR was its inability to hold the team together?
(Emphatically) Yes. And because this was so, everybody was able to pick it apart.
Is the PM capable of continuing to hold the PP together?
So far so good. She has demonstrated the political savvy to hold them together and I repeat, Mrs Persad-Bissessar must be given credit for having the political will and courage to take action when and where necessary, including terminating the employment of certain Cabinet members who were found wanting for different reasons.
Unlike other prime ministers, I believe she is more interested in the welfare of the country rather than sweeping unacceptable behaviour by top government officials under the carpet.