Ralph Maraj

political analysts Ralph Maraj 

I HAD completed an article for today which, inter alia, commends the Prime Minister for being “open” to a review of the tyrannous Sedition Act, the best thing I have heard from him in the last four years.

Indeed according to a Guardian report, PM Keith Rowley noted the law is archaic and the door is not closed to making changes.

But I am propelled today into dealing with the very disturbing revelations involving the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) and the State’s $485 million housing contract with China Gezhouba Group International Engineering Company (CGGC). On July 12, under the Freedom of Information Act, a request was made by the Joint Consultative Council (JCC) to the HDC which provided the information on August 9 regarding details of the contract. These were exposed and examined in the Express Business two weeks ago. The Cabinet subsequently aborted the contract.

Recognising how the people of Trinidad and Tobago could have been cheated, it is now frightening to recall that surreptitious attempt by the PM and his cabinet to send to parliament that omnibus legislation, that included amendments to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that would have imposed an authoritarian blanket of secrecy over official information. One Senior Counsel and a former head of the Public Service termed it “legislative craftiness and stealth”. It was only after widespread objections from individuals, newspaper editorials and 47 organisations, including the Law Association, the Government decided to back down.

In other words, folks, had the nation not stood up, we would not have known of the potential for corruption under this contract. It therefore begs the question. Was the Government’s attempt to emasculate the FOIA intended to hide this contract information and others from the public? If the answer is yes, who stood to benefit from this secrecy? And what is the nature of the people who manage the nation’s affairs?

Because, it is simply unbelievable that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet were unaware of the details in the largest State housing contract in the country’s history. Wouldn’t this have had to come to the cabinet before being signed? Wouldn’t the contract have to be vetted by the Attorney General before being approved? Wouldn’t the Housing Minister have been aware of the nature of the contract and approved it? Certainly the HDC chairman and his board would have discussed and approved it. What in heaven’s name is going on? The people of this nation were being disadvantaged under the very noses of the administration that should be looking after their interest. Scandalous!

Look at the “sweetheart” terms and conditions being given to CGGC under the agreement, described by yesterday’s Express as “disadvantageous to Trinidad and Tobago” and which the paper summarised as the following: the HDC agreed “to guarantee a payment covering 100 per cent of the contract price within 28 days of the signing of the contract agreement; to convert 60 per cent of the $485 million contract price to US dollars; to reimburse all of CGGC’s VAT payables one month after each interim payment and to use its own funds to reimburse the Chinese contractor; to reimburse all of CGGC’s corporate tax payments within one month after submission; to ensure that CGGC does not pay customs duty or import duties, and other fees or charges levied on CGGC in accordance with T&T laws and, if the exemptions were not approved, to pay them out of its own resources.”

The Express Business describes this as “lavish” and “unprecedented benefits and incentives”. Isn’t one then entitled to wonder, as is one’s democratic right, whether any high public officials would have received “kickbacks” had this deal been consummated? Indeed, CGGC has already been blacklisted for such misconduct in World Bank-funded projects.

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So, would the Prime Minister agree to a full-scale enquiry into this matter? He should want to demonstrate, as he is now apparently doing with the Sedition Act, that he is willing to satisfy concerns of the population on critical matters. And what should be more important to any politician than the trust of the population? From my observation, the trust of the people in this administration is almost completely gone.

And with good cause. One former minister is on corruption-related and misappropriation of public funds charges; and questionable dealings hang over the heads of several others with no explanations given. We also remember the administration’s very questionable decision to terminate the State’s actions against former PNM-appointed Petrotrin executive chairman Malcolm Jones on whose watch the company had horrendously wasted $6 billion, saddling the company with massive, crippling debt, contributing to its demise and the loss of thousands of jobs. Today, following the administrative chaos after the refinery’s closure, the very person who chaired the HDC when the very questionable contract with CGGC was determined will play pivotal roles in the post-Petrotrin companies as chairman of Paria Fuel Trading Ltd and director of Trinidad Petroleum Holdings and Heritage Petroleum Company. Shouldn’t his participation be suspended pending an enquiry into the HDC/CGGC contract? That would certainly help to revive some trust in this Government.

As the election campaign heats up, the Government could be in trouble. Its performance over the last four years has been near disastrous. The economy is failing, with reduced revenue, dwindling reserves and mounting debt; the swampland of social decay spreads inexorably, producing horrific consequences; and the endemic institutional dysfunctionality makes a mockery of governance in this country. People are genuinely worried about the future. Fears will be aggravated by this latest scandalous development.

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I HAD completed an article for today which, inter alia, commends the Prime Minister for being “open” to a review of the tyrannous Sedition Act, the best thing I have heard from him in the last four years.

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