Editorial | Conjuring Dr Wheatley
Prime Minister Andrew Holness' partial firing of Andrew Wheatley is likely to be seen as an illusionist's trick that has fallen flat.
For even if he has unloaded a bit of his portfolio, Dr Wheatley, people will perceive, continues to sit among his colleagues in the Cabinet, remaining part of the collective who are the principal instruments of policy for the Government, and, therefore, privy to all its discussions. Importantly, he remains collectively responsible, with other ministers, for the decisions of the group, including the one, Jamaica House disclosed, relating to his relinquishing of, or removal from, the energy portion of his ministry. He retains responsibility for science and technology.
Dr Wheatley, for several weeks has been, for the Government, a damaging liability because of the scandal at a critical agency of his ministry, the Petrojam oil refinery, where there are allegations of cronyism and other forms of corruption. The complaints include the hiring of staff above market rates; giving consulting contracts for work that could be done by Petrojam's parent company; and of Petrojam's recently resigned chairman reimbursing money, only in the face of scandal, for travels he didn't undertake.
These allegations were followed by the disclosure, first reported by this newspaper, of an audit by Venezuela's PDVSA, Jamaica's partner in Petrojam, that revealed the wanton use of direct, rather than competitive, bidding contracts at the company; as well as apparent discrepancies in the internal records - to the tune of millions of US dollars - for oil paid for and the amounts delivered.
Several anti-corruption agencies have begun investigations at the refinery, but Prime Minister Holness had resisted calls for the firing of Dr Wheatley, saying he first had to have information on which to act. Nothing new has emerged in the public domain, except that the decibels have grown louder for Dr Wheatley to be held accountable for what may have gone wrong in his portfolio. That is what Mr Holness promised Jamaicans when he assumed the Government in 2016 and repeated in the House last week.
Notably, the new guidelines relating to the selection of boards of public entities and how they are to operate were posited as decisions of the Cabinet at its meeting on Monday. That statement added:
"After discussions with Minister Wheatley, it was agreed that Petrojam requires a strategic review of both its management and operations, as well as its long-term commercial viability and role in Jamaica's energy security. Having regard to that and the ongoing investigation, Minister Wheatley agreed with the prime minister that in the interest of transparency, the energy portfolio will be transferred to the Office of the Prime Minister ... ."
With regard to the latter point, when you parse the statement, there is some ambiguity - the cynics might claim deliberately so - over whether the decision to strip Dr Wheatley of a bit of his portfolio was solely on the suggestion of the prime minister, who bears the constitutional authority to appoint and fire ministers, or whether it was a consensus of the Cabinet. What is beyond question, though, is that this is not an unambiguous declaration of the head of Government calling one of his ministers to book.
There is no evidence, thus far, that Dr Wheatley is guilty of anything other than perhaps poor judgement in his process of appointing boards and woeful lapse in the oversight of such a critical part of his portfolio, so much so that leading private-sector groups have demanded forensic audits of other agencies for which he still has responsibility.
Obviously, there is an erosion of public trust in Dr Wheatley, which Mr Holness now believes is exacting a political toll on his Government, and to which the PM believes he has to respond. For whatever reason, Mr Holness attempted to conjure rather than act decisively. Dr Wheatley still sits at the table, skin mostly intact.