IF it was not so obvious, it might have carried some credibility. At least for a time.
But once the speech was read by Minister of Finance Colm Imbert in Parliament last week Friday, once the patting of each other on the back by Government members was over in the tea room; and once the picong to the Opposition about San Fernando West being now sealed and Fyzabad now coming under threat and a People’s National Movement victory in the next election assured, the scepticism began to set in and the spectre of a monster of a political deal began to grow.
Of all the 77 international proposals, the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union’s proposal was judged to be the best bid. The only one with an upfront payment. That is what the Minister of Finance said in Parliament last week Friday, as he outlined what one would have to assume were the three most competitive bids and made the case for Patriots.
The sceptics replied, in essence: “Yeah, right!”
Who can blame them? Transparency is not a hallmark of the Rowley Government, and not many unions have run successful businesses anywhere, so the scepticism was a predictable response.
The Wilfred Espinet board must have had some premonition of where decisions were headed and why they were left out of the assessment process once the Lashley Committee was appointed. Because as soon as that Lashley Committee was appointed, the Espinet board sought and received indemnification from the Government on any decision that was to be made on the winner of the bid for purchase of the Petrotrin refinery which had been shut down by the Government.
Nothing stays secret in Trinidad and Tobago for long, so the business community as well as stakeholders elsewhere know the former board—which had set up an arm’s length process, far from the reach of the Government, involving a locally present international bank in a jurisdiction outside of T&T—was eager not to be associated with the Government’s choice of a purchaser, the decision for which had been taken from the hands of the Espinet board, which was eventually fired by news conference.
Little wonder, then, that there is now doubt about transparency, that there is speculation this move is purely and decidedly political and Franklin Khan, Minister of Energy, made a public declaration, carried in the press, that it was not political, which means talk was making the rounds that the decision to sell to the OWTU company, Patriotic, had little or nothing whatsoever to do with economic considerations.
And that is the worry. If it is a purely political decision, then the Government must justify it to the population and advise citizens of any calculated economic risk.
In other words, tell the country as it is.
If it is an economically justifiable decision, based on a superior bid, then to ease any anxieties the population may have the Government must transparently explain the details, with the attendant likely benefits and risks.
In other words, tell the country as it is.
People are happy Petrotrin is being divested into local hands, they are happy the refinery will be reopened, and they are happy for worker ownership and the jobs that will come from reopening the refinery and for the fuels that will be manufactured here and sold, in part, to the local market once more.
But people also wonder if the touted political victory of the PNM and the apparent success of the OWTU through a superior bid will turn out to be a scandal later on and an economic and financial liability for the country as the facts unravel.
That is why transparency is needed now. Not later.
Both the PNM and the OWTU leadership should have an interest in making sure no scandal emerges. After all, a government is elected to seek the national interest, and the OWTU has always proclaimed itself not only pro-worker but pro-patrimony—committed to country and sovereignty.
I suppose that is why the Rowley Government named the successor companies to Petrotrin Heritage—to evoke the notion of protection of our heritage.
And maybe that was the thinking of the OWTU leadership in naming their newly formed company Patriotic—to evoke the notion of patriotism and dedication to the national interest.
All of this is well and good but what are the cold facts, and what do these facts mean to the spectator citizen who was the owner of the refinery before it was shut down and who will still, I presume, have a stakeholder interest when the refinery is sold.
And so now a series of never-ending questions has begun.
What is the deal? Who gets what? Are there any hidden players? What are we not being told, and what is being sacrificed economically and financially at the altar of political advantage?
And so it was on Republic Day, after four full days of speculation, scepticism and mistrust, that the OWTU took the lead to ask for patience from the population, and to pledge transparency on all matters with regard to the transfer of ownership from the Government to Patriotic.
We wait to see whether this will evolve as a win/lose proposition, a lose/lose result, or a win/win value creation all around.
We wait to see.
And we are following this matter closely in the public interest and on behalf of taxpayers and citizens of Trinidad and Tobago who have a stakeholder interest no matter who owns the former Petrotrin refinery or who runs this business.
Because government is accountable to the people. And ultimately the people have the power.
THE AUTHOR is Member of Parliament for Caroni Central.