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Daniel Thwaites | Something fishy in that swamp

Published:Sunday | October 23, 2016 | 10:00 AM

Last week, I was mindful of Mark Twain's observation that if you give a man the reputation of being an early riser, he can comfortably sleep till noon every day and nobody will bother to notice. That's the power of reputation, and I thought about it when getting reactions to my column giving an appraisal of the Holness administration after its first six months in office. I had meant to offer measured praise to Mr Holness, and yet people responded as if I had laid out awful criticism.

I mean, one can only do so much. I couldn't very well praise the Holness administration on crime management because, despite wishing the best to Minister Montague, to say things are going well would leave me on stage wandering around lost like when Spice wanted to sing 'Indicator' and the background music was nothing but crickets.

Similarly, I couldn't very well praise the Holness administration on health management because, despite wishing the best to Minister Tufton and being of the genuine belief that he is among the best available for that job, it hasn't been going particularly well either, and to say otherwise would be obviously false.

 

Resource-starved ministries

 

Mind you, Montague and Tufton are men struggling with resource-starved ministries in exceptionally demanding circumstances, and critique ought to be seasoned with practicality. And, I would add, general sympathy.

Nor could I praise the administration on education, although I believe this is a horse of a different colour. The trouble in education is, in large part, self-created because of the Captain's desperate attempt to be perceived as fulfilling an election promise even while the ship is taking in water.

Plus, failure in education is like one of those Cold War secret-agent poisons that can go unseen for a long time before it inflicts serious damage. The change from a clean school campus paid for by auxiliary fees to unkempt surroundings can happen almost imperceptibly. The withdrawal of a sports programme seems to only affect a few. The classrooms go without a fan, or without paint, and the toilets aren't fixed.

These are failures that can seep into the society less dramatically, but are every bit as hurtful over the long run. Rather, they have seeped into the society, and they have hurt. And we're playing games instead of addressing the problems.

Those are the three big ministries that, however underfunded or under-resourced, swallow up the nation's Budget. Most of the rest is small potatoes. So I tipped my hat at the admin's business friendliness because I believe that having Daryl there to steamroll through red tape is necessary, and I like the idea of the Economic Growth Council and other such efforts.

 

Constitutional woodenness

 

In truth, I had reserved most of the obvious praise for Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke, who I really think is doing a tremendous job. I bemoan the constitutional woodenness that relegates his talent to the shady nether-sphere of 'ambassador'. But as that splendid tautology of resignation says: it is what it is.

Junior Finance Minister Audley Shaw has had his successes as well, and I don't wish to diminish those in the slightest. The fact is that he is managing to extract taxation out of the economy with a stealth and efficiency that must be the envy of junior finance ministers everywhere. The fact that the tax increase came through the Trojan horse of a promised tax break is just an interesting data point for students of the martial arts and of comedy, like myself, where the ultimate trick is to use the weight of a thing against it.

The thing is, having lavished the praise, I've come this week with a criticism. For it is mysterious to me that Mr Holness would spend political capital on this apparent mess with Symbiote that, so far, looks worse and worse upon closer inspection.

Let's be clear about what's happening there. The Office of the Contractor General (OCG) has come out very strongly against the award of the licence to Symbiote, and for some very grave reasons. We all know that the contractor general could look at an award process through his side-eye for various causes, some more worrying than others. In this case, one basis of the OCG's objection is the most serious imaginable. The OCG sees this as a national-security matter. Lemme just repeat that for you: national security.

 

Something fishy

 

Yet, at the conclusion of the last general election, it would appear that the new Cabinet had no more pressing matter than to approve the award of the licence. Now I am all for haste and the elimination of red tape in the conduct of government business, but this one was fast indeed. Especially if you bear in mind that the OCG was jumping up and down and waving his arms in the background saying, "Do NOT do it!" You would have thought this was a time when the decision makers might actually want to slow down and give it a good second look. That's what makes me fear there is something fishy in that swamp.

That is just the tip of the iceberg regarding the swamp detailed by the OCG on this series of transactions. Then, when you add to all this that the Government saw it fit to give a sweet discount on the spectrum to Symbiote, you have to wonder what's going on. Won't that new pricing be applicable to the other carriers? Hasn't this decision thereby devalued a tremendous public asset?

Look, it could be that the contractor general is entirely wrong, and that there are justificatory facts unknown to the public that the contractor general ignored. But in the absence of further information, Ministers Wheatley and Montague, and the prime minister, too, need to wheel and come again.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.