THE assurance by Finance Minister Colm Imbert that he intends to intervene in the current impasse between State-owned Paria and Unipet should be welcome news to a public that may be fearful of becoming a pawn in a high stakes negotiation between both sides.
We note the minister’s insistence that the impasse is an issue of “non-payment for fuel supplied” to the value of $100 million and of “non-signatory of an agreement which has been in force for several months”.
We now await Unipet’s response to both charges.
The little information that has come from Unipet to date is a statement yesterday that it was committed to a speedy resolution and others made during the recent shutdown of Unipet stations regarding its plea for a change in the pricing regime to allow for greater financial viability of its business.
The pile-up of debt, one assumes, is part of that story.
Notwithstanding his intention to intervene, Minister Imbert was vehement in saying that the Government must ensure that anybody who is supplied with fuel paid for by taxpayers’ money pays their bills and does so on time.
A public long accustomed to the humongous bills which State enterprises are allowed to run up in state-to-state transactions might take this position with more than a grain of salt.
It would be interesting to know, for example, whether NP pays its bills to Paria and does so on time.
Still, one could hardly argue with the position that bills should be paid and within an agreed time.
However, this impasse raises issues that go well beyond that of payment.
A core question here is the level of commitment by the government to the demonopolisation of the gas station industry.
If the privately-owned Unipet stations are considered strategically important to the supply equation, the State must embrace its role, as Minister Imbert has indicated he will, as a manager in any situation that could affect the public and national interest.
In this particular case, there is the risk of Unipet going under with negative consequences for the public given that Paria is a monopoly and therefore the only source of Unipet’s fuel supplies.
Despite the many exhortations to the government to allow State enterprises the room to make decisions in their own interests, it would be surprising if the ministries of Energy and Finance have not been deeply involved in this issue and were not alerted to Paria’s intentions.
How much hardball is the government prepared to support, and to what end, are questions to be answered.
For example, is the government supportive of a return to a monopoly in the petroleum dealers’ market?
If not, what are its conditions for throwing Unipet a lifeline?
These are questions not only for the government but for the wider public, including those who patronise Unipet stations in locations where NP has no presence and who see great value in a privately-owned element to the petroleum dealership sector dominated by the State.
The issues arising from this impasse go well beyond a $100 million debt and need to be taken into account in moving it towards a resolution.