Thu | Jul 19, 2018

Editorial | Dr Wheatley and Petrojam’s big leak

Published:Saturday | June 23, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The image of Energy Minister Dr Andrew Wheatley emerging from a low-slung sports car assisted by models as he swaggered into Parliament to speak at the Sectoral Debate could convince the onlooker that his ministry was on target to "energise, innovate, and empower for national growth".

Who could have known that Petrojam was deeply mired in scandal? Who could have known that the board had not met in nine months? Who could have imagined that the simmering problems over at NESOL were about to boil over? Was the minister not aware of allegations of malfeasance at Petrojam?

Using cricket metaphor, the minister painted a rosy picture of hitting sixes and fours and piling on runs on a wicket laid by his predecessor.

But it is now emerging that Dr Wheatley had taken his eye off the ball for way too long as illustrated by resignations, lawsuits, overspending, cost overruns, and a flagrant disregard for taxpayers' money in two key entities under his portfolio.

Generally, there has been a long-standing problem with public-sector governance in Jamaica. For one, the process lacks transparency and independence. As one politician famously stated, the idea is to "pack the board with supporters". She was, of course, confirming that many boards are made up of political appointees.

Annual adverse reports from the auditor general, criticism of the Office of the Contractor General, and critical voices of citizens have unfortunately not resulted in significant changes to guard against abuse of power, political bias, nepotism, and corruption in many public bodies, with the result that we are simply lurching from one scandal to another.

This long list of scandals has served to erode public confidence in the integrity of the system of public-sector governance. In a way, it is because of this taint that many persons shun public-sector board appointments.

Concern about the waning level of trust may have prompted the development of a Corporate Governance Framework for public bodies in 2011 with the stated purpose of "improving accountability, probity, and transparency among public bodies in order to achieve a more compliant, responsive, efficient, and transparent public service".

 

NO ENFORCEMENT

 

There is even a Competency Profile Instrument to provide guidance. We wonder which ministers of government can truly state that they rely on this Competency Profile Instrument to guide their selections of persons to serve on public-sector boards.

We have the mistaken belief in Jamaica that we must deal with issues by enacting more legislation, but once the laws come into being, they are rarely enforced. The effect is that new laws are passed, but everything remains the same.

There are nearly 200 public-sector bodies, many of which are charged with the responsibility of taking far-reaching decisions. Their roles include fiduciary responsibilities for effective use of public assets. Governing boards are expected by the public to develop a strategy and vision in order to strengthen and sustain the organisations they serve. Board members are acting in the interest of the public and have a critical role to perform.

We believe that the looming crisis in the energy sector demands the immediate intervention of the prime minister. It is time for a critical review of the role of ministers in the board appointment process. It is time to assess conflict of interest and conflict of roles. It is time for a radical new appointment system.