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The PNP doesn't seem to learn from its mistakes

Garfield Higgins

Sunday, December 16, 2018

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The ocean never drowns a person whose legs it doesn't come into contact with. — Igbo Proverb, Nigeria

Many of the reactions, exchanges and expert commentary on the auditor general's report on aspects of Petrojam Limited and the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ) reminds me of a famous Hindu parable.

“Three blind men encounter an elephant for the first time and try to describe it, each touching a different part.

“ 'An elephant is like a snake,' says one, grasping the trunk.

“ 'Nonsense; an elephant is a fan,' says another, who holds an ear.

“ 'A tree trunk,' insists a third, feeling his way around a leg.”

In June of this year, when the Petrojam scandal first came to public light, I declared more than once in this space, inter alia: “Let the chips fall where they may.”

That is still my position.

I believe the auditor general's report is a golden opportunity for Prime Minister Andrew Holness to clean the Augean stable.

 

Paulwell's plays

Recent People's National Party (PNP) Administration-proffered excuses have been meaningless palliatives, cover-ups, braggadocio, and a total disregard and abuse of the public's trust.

Phillip Paulwell, former minister of science, technology, energy, and mining, in addition to being the Opposition spokesperson on mining and energy today, also ironically parades in the trappings of a self-appointed national czar on governance. The irony is loud!

Recall, in April 2001, Paulwell, then minister of industry, commerce and technology, began to preen his ministerial feathers and instructed the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) to stop interfering with the rate charged for fixed to mobile (FTM) calls. He intervened in March 2002 by calling then OUR Director General Winston Hay with the good news that a fourth telecommunications company was interested in the provision of service to Jamaica, but would only do so if the FTM rates remained unchanged.

Hay, to his credit, refused.

The meddling minister would not be quelled, and thus issued a directive which effectively restricted the role of the OUR to set rates and tariffs on interconnections. The OUR made the minister 'climb 11 step' [took the matter to court] and the Supreme Court ruled that the minister had no power to issue the directive he did.

The Court of Appeal later ruled that Paulwell's directive to the OUR fell outside of his ministerial ambit and the OUR did not have to “pay him bad mind” as we say in some rural parts of Jamaica.

Paulwell was apparently not insulted, injured, and certainly not daunted.

Then NetServ, another disaster in judgement, came. According to a story printed in the Jamaica Observer of February 18, 2002, entitled 'Majority of J'cans did not hear about NetServ Scandal': “NetServ was one of the information technology companies which Paulwell had projected would provide 40,000 jobs over a three-year period and which was able to tap into the multimillion-dollar Intech Fund, at low interest, to help in its start-up.

“The fund is managed by the National Development Bank of Jamaica (NIBJ), but project proposals and request for loans were evaluated by an inter-agency committee, headed by the top civil servant in Paulwell's ministry, and on which the minister sometimes sat himself.

“But it emerged that in the case of NetServ, the NIBJ disbursed the first $95 million of a $180-million loan even before there were due-diligence reports on NetServ and its principal, Trinidad-born businessman, Paul Periera.

“Even after reports emerged raising questions about the ethics of Periera and some of his business partners... the NIBJ continued with its disbursements to the company, although there was to have been a tighter process of accountability.

“NetServ collapsed in December and was placed in receivership by the NIBJ, with Periera claiming that bad publicity, violence in Jamaica, and the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States had scared off investors.”

Over $200 million was squandered on this project involving a dubious company. Massive pressure from civil society, the private sector, and the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) called for Paulwell to be fired. Then Prime Minister P J Patterson fanned away Paulwell's actions as “youthful exuberance”.

In 2006 moves were made in Parliament to censure Paulwell, owing to what became known as the cement fiasco. The Caribbean Cement Company recalled some 500 tonnes of faulty product. Minister Paulwell was accused of negligence and gross dereliction of duty. The Opposition argued that Paulwell, despite recommendations from the Jamaica Bureau of Standards, failed to exercise his ministerial authority to declare that the production of cement needed to conform to the bureau's certification programme.

The Opposition also accused him of providing false information to Parliament. A US cable leak noted that the fiasco nearly crippled the local construction industry and caused severe shortages. Some experts in the construction industry estimated at the time that the Jamaican economy lost over $100 million per day.

In 2007, Paulwell was again embroiled in controversy after he said that the sale of a fourth mobile licence would go to a company called Solutrea Jamaica Limited. This company was to pay US$7.5 million for the licence. When questions were asked about the entire process, it emerged that Paulwell had issued the licence without all the required due diligence and notifications to the necessary public agencies who needed to agree to the sale.

Then there was the Cuban light bulb scandal. The Jamaican Government amassed a US$3.9-million bill for the distribution of four million energy-saving fluorescent bulbs donated by the Cuban Government to the people of Jamaica. Investigations led to the matter being turned over to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the fraud squad. Kern Spencer, then minister of state in the Ministry of Energy, Industry and Commerce, and his personal assistant, Coleen Wright, were arrested on numerous charges. They were subsequently both freed by the court. Paulwell, who was then minister of energy, industry and commerce, was absolved of any wrongdoing by the PNP-controlled Parliament.

In the Westminster system the minister takes responsibility and resigns.

Today, Paulwell goes around in public with a giant pair of responsibility scales, weighing the actions of all, except himself.

In 2014, Paulwell pulled off what I believe to be his biggest ruination. For years, successive governments have been trying to arrive at a solution to the high cost of local electricity. A 381-megawatt power plant was said to be the answer.

This project started and stopped more times than efforts to revitalise the defunct Jamaican Railway Service. Just when it seemed that Jamaicans were finally going to get some needed good news, Paulwell had to spoil the show.

Paulwell, despite local and international warnings regarding Energy World International (EWI), went ahead and changed the terms and conditions of the licence that was given to him by the OUR and issued an amended licence to EWI.

The editorial in the Jamaica Observer on Thursday, May 1, 2014, entitled 'Minister Paulwell just doesn't get it', allows one to draw the conclusion that Paulwell was not only reckless but he was dangerously meddlesome.

“Readers will recall that Contractor General Dirk Harrison, in a report to Parliament last September, said that EWI was being improperly facilitated by Minister Paulwell in the bidding process.

“The contractor general described the minister's intervention and acceptance of the bid from EWI as unfair and said it compromised the integrity of the process, given that EWI entered the process after bids had been closed, and its application went to Mr Paulwell's ministry on its way to the OUR.

“ 'Based upon the documentary evidence which was reviewed, it is clear that the 'goalpost' kept moving to facilitate EWI's proposal and that the process in its current form could not stand up to review,' Mr Harrison wrote in his report.

“Readers should recall, as well, that Mr Paulwell responded to the contractor general's findings by stating that: 'We cannot have the OCG [Office of the Contractor General] derailing this matter again. It has to go forward.'

“The point, Minister Paulwell, is that the process became flawed when you intervened. You should therefore not be surprised by the IDB's response, neither should you try to pass the blame off to the OCG and, worse, the country.”

 

Déjà vu?

Last Tuesday, the JLP called for Paulwell to resign in the face of the damning auditor general's report which fingered two years of his ministerial stewardship.

Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition and president of the PNP Dr Peter Phillips “says he has full confidence in Phillip Paulwell as the Opposition spokesman on mining and energy and he will not be removed from that responsibility”. ( Jamaica Observer, December 11, 2018)

This is classic yesterday leadership at play.

But where did I hear a similar contemptible defence of Paulwell before?

Recall this: “Let me make it quite clear: I have a minister of energy in place. Unless he does something wrong that would affect and impact the Jamaican people in a serious way and the Government of Jamaica [he will not be fired],” [Prime Minister Portia] Simpson Miller said in responding to a question from Opposition Leader Andrew Holness. ( Jamaica Observer, June 4, 2014)

Simpson Miller's and now Peter Phillips's detestable defence of Phillip Paulwell are “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that has starved to death”.

Here I am borrowing Abraham Lincoln's ridicule of Senator Stephen Douglas's Freeport Doctrine.

 

Good Move, Holness

Prime Minister Andrew Holness, consistent with his pre-election commitment of “no more cover-ups”, announced last Monday that there is to be a forensic audit into the $5.2 billion worth of oil that has been unaccounted for between 2013 and 2018 at the State-owned oil refinery Petrojam.

A Jamaica Observer report also revealed: “Holness said that those who benefited illegally from State funds must pay back, adding that the boards of Petrojam and the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ) will be instructed to take steps necessary to reclaim any wrongly used public funds.”

“As it relates to the issue of pricing mechanisms employed to determine gas prices, the prime minister said there is some discretion used to determine prices locally, and in that exercise lies an opportunity to bring transparency.

“He said directives will now be given to the board as of now to prepare minutes of the pricing committee, which must then be sent to the ministries of energy and finance...” He said directives will now be given to the board as of now to prepare minutes of the pricing committee, which must then be sent to the ministries of energy and finance.( Jamaica Observer, December 10, 2018)

These are steps in the right direction.

 

Penultimate nail

“Opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) voted last week to end the states of emergency introduced by the Government since January 2017 to curtail crime and violence across Jamaica.” ( Jamaica Observer, December 12, 2018)

I believe the PNP fastened the penultimate nail in its political coffin with that vote.

“He who feels it knows it,” is a truism.

Some who live in gated communities, or who can afford to hire a private security company, or have a licensed firearm or the cover of the protective services and/or a pack of pit bulls to help defend person and property, in too many instances are oblivious of the realities in which many of our fellow citizens are literally held hostage by criminals.

The latest figures from the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) are that murders are down by 21.6 per cent. Violent crime is down by 19 per cent. There are 321 fewer murders in this year compared to 2017.

St James, where there has been a limited state of emergency since January, has seen a 69 per cent reduction in murders, and 203 fewer people murdered in the parish this year. Since the start of the year, 705 fewer violent crimes have been committed in Jamaica compared to 2017. That's a 19 per cent decline in violent crimes. Shootings are down by 21 per cent, cases of rape have declined by 12 per cent, and aggravated assault has decreased by 13 per cent.

The fact that Phillips' Opposition voted against further extension of the states of emergency in St James and sections of St Catherine and the Corporate Area in the face of these major reductions in serious crimes across our country confirms for me that they don't give a damn about the most important human right — the right to life.

I believe the country must hold Dr Peter Phillips and the PNP responsible for any upsurge in shootings, rapes, robberies, murders, and other similar crimes.

In 2010, our country had a glorious opportunity to deliver a fatal blow to the hubs of numerous gunmen and gangs. The PNP voted against an extension of the states of emergency into Clarendon and St Catherine.

The PNP has obviously not learned from its mistakes. I think the ordinary folks across the length and breadth of this country have.

 

Senate passes new Road Traffic Act

This is one of the best pieces of news for 2018.

“The new Road Traffic Act was finally approved by Parliament yesterday, but its implementation is unlikely to be completed prior to next April. ( Jamaica Observer, December 8, 2018)

The carnage on our roads must be halted.

Jamaica's best days are ahead. I am betting on Jamaica, full stop!

 

Garfield Higgins is an educator; journalist; and advisor to the minister of education, youth and information. Send comments to the Observer or higgins160@yahoo.com.


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