Public confidence in any government is not helped when the family of a senior government minister is the beneficiary of State contacts. In the case of Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi, contracts to his relatives run to over $20 million a year for the rental of property, according to an exclusive Sunday Express report. Put in context, this works out to 8.5 per cent of the State’s annual bill for the rental of private property.
The AG is not the first Cabinet minister whose family has benefited directly from state procurement and, judging by the ease with which opposition parties switch from railing against the practice to embracing it in office, he is unlikely to be the last. However, the public’s concerns about the contract selection process and influence-peddling are invariably buried under emphatic assertions about the rights of ministers’ families to receive State contracts like anyone else, public perception be damned. In a political culture which accepts that financiers and supporters are entitled to State rewards, influence-peddling is a rather hazy concept.
In addition to the issues raised by the State’s rental of property from the AG’s family, the fact that the Government’s annual rental bill stands at $235,829,007.68 raises public policy questions about planning and our vision of the future.
Citing a $11l million reduction in the Government’s bill for property rental since 2015, Public Administration Minister Allyson West said the figures suggest the Government is heading in the right direction. If she is to convince the public, she would need to disclose much more detail. The 2017 opening of Government Campus alone, which according to Finance Minister Colm Imbert, saves the State $18 million annually, would account for over one-third of the $111 million reduction. Additional savings would have come from the relocation of the Ministry of Agriculture from St Clair, Port of Spain, to the building on the outskirts of Chaguanas originally constructed for the Ministry of Tertiary Government. Government Campus and the new headquarters of Ministry of Agriculture were initiated by the Patrick Manning and Kamla Persad-Bissessar administrations, respectively. Minister West needs to disclose the projects that the Rowley administration has embarked upon with the aim of reduce the State’s burden of private rentals.
Ultimately, however, the State’s expenditure on the rental of private property is not about money. It is also about the vision for the future shape of government. How long does T&T envisage the work of government as a bricks-and-mortar enterprise, largely centralised in the capital? Where is the blueprint for a future of government that is both decentralised and online? Without a coherent plan for that very different shape of the future, the Rowley administration’s Vision 2030 will be as unrealised as Manning’s Vision 2020.
If the Government is serious about decentralisation and e-government, it must do so on the basis of a plan that is fully thought through and well-articulated. The process must also include a plan for the capital city of Port of Spain. As the largest tenant, the Government has the power to determine the direction of property development in the capital.