Fri | May 29, 2020

Mark Wignall | PM, best you cut Wheatley now

Published:Wednesday | June 27, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Dr Andrew Wheatley, science, energy and technology minister.

Any government minister who accepts all of the hype, the respect-due trappings and the braggadocio that automatically comes with being named 'minister' must also accept the full substance of his accountability failures.

Energy minister, Dr Andrew Wheatley, has as one of his core responsibilities the running of the state-owned oil refinery, Petrojam. In all of the political noise and troubling bits of information and misinformation that have been roiling that entity for the last few weeks, it is becoming obvious that there is some substance to the noise.

Long seen as a magnet for corruption and slush, Petrojam, in a time where accountability and transparency were promoted by sweet political words in February 2016, would have been one of those state entities where any minister worth his salt would have known on the day after his appointment that his responsibilities to keep it above the fray of corruption or even the very suspicion of wrongdoing would constantly weigh heavily on him.

For that reason alone the politics-as-usual approach would just never quite cut it. At this time, no one has levelled any charges of wrongdoing at Minister Wheatley, but politically, as civil society and an opposition energised by what it smells apply pressure on the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) administration, the sensible thing to do would be for the prime minister to remove the minister from the duties encumbering his bright, young head.

"What do you think the PM should do about Wheatley?" a powerful JLP insider asked me last weekend.

"First, let's look at it politically,' I said. "Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips has found a gear and he and the PNP (People's National Party) are pressing on the accelerator. You don't want the PM to retain Wheatley on the basis that he is not giving in to the PNP until all the bits and pieces of the puzzle are put together. The danger in that is that if MOCA or any other body investigates and find wrongdoing or accountability issues with Wheatley it will appear that the PM was protecting Wheatley.

"On a broader basis, the PM has made himself out to be the leader for transparency and accountability. I believe a majority of the population believe corruption exists even if it may not be so. History supports the position of the public so, to me, Wheatley has to go."

"So, what about the fallout?" he asked.

"In the short term, Phillips and the PNP will be riding high. Opposition parties live for moments like this, as you well know. But the PM cannot take any chances and he must be in the game for the long haul. At this stage his assumptions must be that Wheatley was more hype than substance and he failed in monitoring all that was taking place."

Prime Minister Holness must at this time cede the political moment to the PNP, and whether Wheatley is seen as a sacrificial lamb or a stage performer who had failed to pay keen attention to the backdrop and the backup singers, or, even if the whole matter is one big game of political smoke-and-mirrors, the minister has to be cut loose.

During the long run of P.J. Patterson as PNP leader and prime minister, whenever then opposition leader Eddie Seaga made some noise in parliament and laid claim to what he saw as a pressing national concern, P.J. would skilfully 'give in'.

Seaga would cool off, the political huffing and puffing would die down and Patterson would look long term and go on to win another election.

The nation wants a closer look at Petrojam. The PM must welcome that examination.