The shine is coming off the PM's ball partisan loyalties run deep and trump common sense


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

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Prime Minister Andrew Holness has so far succeeded in placing a finger in the leaking dyke of Petrojam. But even he would know that this will not be sufficient to hold back the raging tide that has threatened to overwhelm that corporation.

What was revealed from the long Cabinet deliberation on the matter, and later distilled in Parliament under withering fire from the Opposition, still left a number of questions to be answered. Frankly, the removal of the energy portfolio from the embattled Dr Andrew Wheatley, while retaining him as a minister, has left many wondering about the seriousness of the prime minister in really dealing with the matter.

The truth is that Petrojam still faces an existential threat as far as its operations are concerned. What has been revealed so far does not give the people of Jamaica any comfort that this threat is likely to be removed anytime soon. Putting in new board members and tepidly demoting a minister will hardly remove the pall that hangs over the embattled corporation.

The Cabinet deliberation revealed that, “Petrojam requires a strategic review of its management and operations, as well as its long-term commercial viability and role in Jamaica's energy security.” To this end, Wheatley agreed to step aside so that full transparency in the review process could be accommodated. The truth is that a strategic review of Petrojam's management and operations has been long overdue. The problems at Petrojam did not begin yesterday or during the Holness Administration. It is a cash cow that for the longest time has not been given the scrutiny it deserves.

So for us now to be told after grievous problems have arisen at the refinery that the Government is just discovering that this needs to be done is an insult to the intelligence of the Jamaican people. If this review was done a good while back the harassed public might have been spared the harshness of the pricing regime reflected in the high price of gas at the pumps, in their energy bills, and the various aspects of daily life affected by energy costs. When the international gas price dipped below US$40 per barrel, harassed consumers were not given the benefit of such a fall. Prices continued to be high with only token gestures given to indicate that the corporation had a heart.

The ways in which high salaries have been paid and board members allowed to behave like King Tut tell the tale of the profligacy at the corporation. When a monopolistic corporation which is rolling in dollars is given almost free rein to operate at will, it will — often to the discomfort of the people it should serve. We have seen this in every large government corporation in this country; from the telephone company to the Jamaica Public Service when they were publicly owned.

To hold back the rising tide of discontent at the refinery, the Government has decided to assemble a special enterprise team to conduct and oversee the organisational and strategic review of the corporation. This sounds nice, but who will comprise the team? How will this strategic review be conducted and what will be the essential features of its mandate? Is this yet another attempt to give the impression that something is being done when truly it is to buy time and indulge Jamaica's fascination with nine-day wonders?

Petrojam has now become a special case, and something has to be done immediately to cauterise the messy flow and bring some semblance of order to what is taking place there. But any review of the corporation should be part of the wider rationalisation of public sector bodies that the Government is presently pursuing. But one wonders whether Dr Nigel Clarke, finance and public service minister, is really seized of the difficult task he has to bring these bodies into the 21st century.

He has his work cut out for him to chop through the thick jungle of political tribalism that has bedevilled public corporations. We hope he is not approaching the matter with a mere intellectual and bookish appreciation of the task. He has articulated well what has to be done, but does he, and the Holness Administration by extension, have the political will to see this through? I am beginning to have grave doubts.

Recent indications from the prime minister leaves one in doubt that he is willing to untether himself from the deplorable politics of tribalism in which he is enmeshed as a practitioner. Unblinkered political loyalty did not allow him the wisdom of fully retiring Dr Andrew Wheatley — someone to whom he is clearly loyal given Wheatley's loyalty to him in his fight for presidency of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). He could have reassigned him to another portfolio — as Dr Fenton Ferguson was when he was removed as minister of health. But partisan loyalties run deep and will always trump common sense.

One does not know what the prime minister is trying to achieve by relocating energy under his watchful eye at the Office of the Prime Minister. There have been serious paradigm shifts in global energy perspectives over the last decade that merit that subject having its own independent portfolio in any Government, especially one so dependent on oil imports. The emerging influence of liquefied natural gas (LNG) alone should call for this kind of attention. Yet it is subsumed under the prime minister's office along with a long list of other portfolios.

Someone needs to tell the prime minister that the over-concentration of governmental portfolios under his office under the dubious super ministry of economic growth is simply not working. However gifted he may consider himself he cannot keep his eyes on everything and run the entire government at the same time.

One senses that the prime minister has been smitten by a bout of “Seagaitis” — the arrogation of power to oneself by the mistaken belief that you alone can do the work effectively. Holness is perhaps seeing merit in his mentor's enormous portfolio when he was prime minister in the 1980s. It did not work then, and there is no suggestion that it will work now. It is a testimony of a leader's belief in the incapacity of those he leads buttressed by a vaunted sense of one's own abilities and prowess.

While the prime minister seems to be losing the shine on his ball, cricketing metaphor notwithstanding, the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) is rinsing the JLP's dilemma for all it is worth. They smell blood and they are going for the political jugular of the Government. This is what political parties do. They have no shame about their own participation in corruption when they formed the Government of the day for almost 23 years. But now that they are in Opposition they have taken on a superior moral countenance as to rival Mother Teresa's.

They present themselves as agents of change who will undo the corruption of the Government and institute strategies and procedures to ensure accountability and transparency. The people of Jamaica should not be fooled by this. They should know that this is all campaign talk and govern their votes accordingly. I have written repeatedly that, in the context of the politics we practise, Jamaican politicians will not do anything that will untether themselves from their voting bases.

The people must insist for change, especially those who are not deeply wedded to any of the tribal camps — and there is a growing number of Jamaicans that are not. This may not sound like a sexy subject now, but it is only far-reaching constitutional reform which will result in a radical reordering of the way we do business that will work. Neither the JLP nor the PNP have it within themselves to do this. It is the people who must stand up and be counted.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or

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