Until the Procurement Act is fully proclaimed, no action should be taken towards the disposal of significant state assets, most notably the gas stations currently owned by State-owned National Petroleum.
For far too long, this critical piece of legislation which is designed to ensure transparent and corruption-free state transactions has been kicked down the road while governments continue conducting transactions under an outdated and unsatisfactory regime. This must not continue. With economic conditions bad, and likely to get worse, the Office of Procurement Regulation (OPR) must be activated in the public interest as a matter of urgency. The national value of the OPR is being eroded with each day that passes without it being empowered to provide much-needed oversight of State transactions.
Introduced by the People’s Partnership government, the Procurement Act lagged into the administration of the People’s National Movement, which proceeded to procrastinate on it for the full five years of its first term. Now, in the first budget of its second term, the government has announced major decisions regarding the sale of public assets, including NP gas stations, the Petrotrin refinery and partial divestment of the port with the most cursory of nods to the unproclaimed act.
In the absence of this piece of legislation, the government should not expect to enjoy the benefit of automatic public trust. Indeed, it can expect a deepening of distrust, given the likelihood of intensified competition for increasingly scarce resources.
With the country depleting its savings and borrowing money to shore up the economy over an extended period of reduced national income, it is imperative that the Government account for every cent spent. The public must also be protected against the risk of a panicked Government seeking quick solutions and being tempted into fire sales of valuable State assets. The almost casual manner in which the decision to sell off NP stations was presented as a fait accompli to the public should alert the public to this risk. At the very least, one expects the Government to lay a paper in Parliament justifying the economic decision and outlining some basis on which it was selected as the optimum solution, given the implications of the price of gas at the pump.
Business confidence, which is so critical to investment, requires trust in the Government’s commitment to a level playing-field untarnished by nepotism, partisanship and corruption. If people do not believe they have a fair and even chance of securing a State contract, they will begin to withdraw, with implications for the overall health of the economy.
While the Procurement Act threatens the centralised political culture by insisting on transparency and accountability, these are values with which the Government must come to terms as custodian of public assets.
In his budget speech, Finance Minister Colm Imbert warned against conflicts arising from the “interplay of political and economic forces” if T&T is to make a “planned and safe exit” from the Covid-19 crisis. True, but the Government must recognise that co-operation is a two-way street on which the onus is on it to defuse the potential for conflict by committing to openness and transparency.