A former attorney general has conceded that State enterprises are “unfortunately” one of the mechanisms for dispensing patronage.
John Jeremie and retired senior public servant Arlene McComie were less than comforting in their assessments of the country’s huge portfolio of State enterprises on a recent panel discussion examining the state of corporate governance in the State sector. The forum was part of a week-long focus organised by the Caribbean Corporate Governance Institute (CCGI) located at the head office of the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Port of Spain.
‘No statutory underpinning’
Jeremie, who was attorney general in two Manning administration in the early 2000s, said during the CCGI discussion there is “ample evidence that many State enterprises are set up as a means of achieving levels of oversight that is not possible through the public service which is heavily regulated”.
He said he had been a part of the discussions in the formation of a number of State enterprises, adding that in many cases there is “no statutory underpinning” to require governance standards. He said his experience is that “no government is going to say that they will open the front door to oversight and scrutiny in some of these organisations when one of the driving motivators for setting up some of them was to exploit the ease of doing business enjoyed by many of them. He said a lot of State enterprises are not designed to be subjects of public law so that they are not amenable to court oversight, such as in judicial review.
In response to another question during the webinar, Jeremie said the central question regarding the operation of State enterprises is “who actually governs”. That, he said, “is linked to the authority question. If we want the benefit of State enterprises separate from government, why not let the companies carry out their mandate without subjecting them to undue influence of State control”. But he added swiftly, a central question in this equation was “if you have persons in place who are not properly up to the task of governance”.
His general advice to people in leadership positions in State entities was that they should “be careful about taking advice from government ministers”.
When asked what advice he would give to students on this issue, he said it would be that they should “focus on being realistic. State enterprises are unfortunately one of the mechanisms for dispensing patronage. Remember that even if some battles are not easily won, they are worth being fought.”
He had said earlier that Jamaica had gone ahead of T&T on this front by legislating specially for governance standards in State enterprises, while Barbados was operating under laws similar to what T&T has in place here.