“The duty of a true patriot is to protect his country from his government.”—Thomas Paine
The business of government is a complex operation with many moving parts. So complex that a “new complexity theory” suggests that we shift our analysis from individual parts of a political system to the system as a whole; as a network of elements that interact and combine to produce systemic emergent behaviour.
For example, the Trade Ministry may be responsible for giving import licences but must obtain input/approval from other ministries. Food imports from new areas will require agreement from both the Health and Agriculture Ministries that the sanitary and phytosanitary requirements are met before an item can be imported. Witness the warning two weeks ago from the Health Ministry with respect to the use of imported romaine lettuce.
Countries (governments) that manage this complexity smoothly are highly rated in the ease of doing business rankings. Ease of doing business means just that; it is a comparison between countries of the time frame to accomplish tasks and benchmarks the country against “regulatory best practices”. Corruption is at the lowest end of the scale. Best practices cover a wide range of matters including government’s acquisition or disposal of assets and the possibility of unjust enrichment.
In response to public concern, the “Procurement Act” was meant to provide a framework to deliver transparency, accountability, integrity, and value for the acquisition or disposal of “public property”. Public property is defined as real (land) or personal property (shares) owned by a public body. However, the act has been proclaimed but only partially implemented. The disposal of Petrotrin and its restructured siblings and property acquired through the CLF bankruptcy proceedings would fall under this act.
Government’s complexity is exemplified by ministerial comments dealing with Petrotrin’s August Long Hospital. Speaking in Parliament on November 23, the Energy Minister said a request for proposals (RFP) will be issued in January 2019 for lease or sale of the hospital property. When questioned on this, the Health Minister responded that the asset “belonged” to the Energy Ministry and was not part of the Health Ministry. Really? What is the wider policy regarding health care? Are they not both Cabinet members and ought to harmonise policy statements particularly when there is overlap? Do assets belong to individual ministries? If yes, then what is the role of the Corporation Sole in acquisition or disposition?
The Health Minister also disclosed that the Couva Children’s Hospital had been transferred to the University of the West Indies which now had a 51 per cent controlling share (government 49 per cent) and that he would be speaking to the Board “to see where their heads are for the Couva Facility”. One should ask where is the minister’s head?
The Couva Hospital which cost $1.5 billion was transferred in settlement of a $250 million-plus debt owed to UWI? Even if the transfer had been done, is not the Health Minister responsible for health policy? What was the disposal process, and did it meet the standards set in the act? Further, how will UWI, which has difficulty in meeting its normal operating and payroll expenditures, find the resources estimated at $450 million annually to run the Couva Hospital.
And what of the current running costs (electricity, security, building, and grounds maintenance, insurance) which must be paid? Not to mention that UWI has no experience in running a hospital.
Is this manoeuvre simply a step in removing the acquisition/sourcing of a hospital operator from public scrutiny since UWI is not a government/public body? A continuation of the ferry procurement methodology? Or a way of moving the hospital from the public healthcare system to a private health care scheme?
Both the Finance Minister and the Central Bank Governor have indicated that much of the $23 billion Clico bailout has been recovered in cash and assets; shares in OCM, Angostura, Witco, 19.5 per cent of HCL and lands in Tobago “valued” at $186 million, the site of the proposed Sandals resort. History shows that land value appreciates significantly before elections, or when needed for state projects. Buoyed by government promises of housing development expenditure many shrewd landowners and contractors have been able to significantly improve their wealth at the expense of the taxpayer.
How are the underlying land assets in HCL and Tobago are to be managed, utilised, and monetised? Until the bailout, HCL was a successful private developer and remains the country’s largest private landowner. The State, through HDC, is the largest purchaser and housing reseller. Now in a “unique” coincidence, HDC’s chairman comes from HCL and the State owns both. This coincidence could complicate arrangements for the disposal or use of the HCL land, especially where it relates to the provision of houses for the state, either by HCL or PPP arrangements. The same applies to the Tobago lands and the Sandals project.
These are early days in the disposal of Petrotrin and CLF assets and gaps are emerging. The call for leadership, accountability, management, and productivity must be added to the Procurement Act’s call for transparency, integrity, and value for money.