Sun | Aug 19, 2018

Mark Ricketts | Petrojam’s failure is Jamaica’s weakness

Published:Sunday | July 15, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Last Tuesday morning, July 10, Prime Minister Holness held a press briefing following a talk in Spanish Town. At the briefing, he pointed out that it was a good thing he didn't move with injudicious haste and take the kind of action that some members of the public were calling for, as many of the allegations that people are bantering about are unfounded.

TVJ led its Tuesday night newscast with Holness' announcement that many of the allegations made against Petrojam are baseless.

I was dumbfounded by what the prime minister said, and like so many things in the wider society, he is setting the bar too low. That being the case, change is going to be a long time in coming.

Not once did the prime minister mention even one allegation that was baseless or untrue. That clearly was not important or relevant to allay the fears of a wider society trapped by what seems to be a runaway freight train of mismanagement, non-accountability, and undisciplined leadership.

More important, given Petrojam's size, status, importance, and international linkage, if the prime minister had set the bar for governance very high, he would not be talking about whether more allegations are likely to unravel. What he would be incensed about is how a culture of excellence, probity, transparency could be so divorced from a corporation of such critical importance to the Jamaican economy.

That state-owned agency should have been Jamaica's shining star on the hill with asset valuation enhanced, reputation bolstered, governance practices first rate, and oversight and accountability impeccable.

Instead, what we have is a laughing stock with the Jamaican board members and the chief executive "separated from the company", with the minister with oversight responsibility agreeing with the prime minister to relieve himself of the energy portfolio, which is a third of what he oversees.

For decades there has been a litany of scandals, fiascos, corruption, waste, under both administrations, and each time our leaders underestimate the gravity of the situation, the enduring nature of the problems, and overstate the benefits accruing from seemingly assured and well-thought-out policy solutions.

The big question is, will things ever change?

The prime minister has once again spoken and assured the nation that with the investigations under way and with corrective measures put in place, things will be different this time around. Some are keeping their fingers crossed that measures he announced, such as tighter regulations and the need to explicitly give oversight to the beleaguered PCJ, will make the difference.

 

MUSICAL CHAIRS

 

What we must understand is that Petrojam's failure is Jamaica's weakness, and until Jamaica can demonstrate transformational leadership, we will be engaged in a game of musical chairs where loyalty bypasses competence and one-upmanship overrides excellence.

In this new dispensation look at how, at the drop of a hat, we find three new board members to replace those on the old board. Compare this with the diligence, the length of time, and the no stone-left-unturned approach by successful companies or by even state-run companies in countries like Singapore. When positions have to be filled in their high-performance, high-valued state-owned companies, it is a massive undertaking where professionalism, objectivity, competence, and good corporate governance are the guiding principles. That's why Singapore, a country the size of St James, is in the top 10 in the world in terms of per-capita income.

In our hope for success, we keep forgetting that Jamaica is rooted in political garrison, that both of our party leaders are familiar with and defined by inner-city garrisons, and our prime minister's political birthright was given credence by his political father, who birthed and legitimised garrisons. The upshot of this is cliquism and tribalism.

If all this was not brought to light through the parliamentary committee hearings, would we have ever known about the mismanagement, poor corporate governance, and absence of sufficient oversight in Petrojam? We are left to wonder how much of this is taking place in other state agencies, especially those that are self-financing, and for those which are not profitable, like the JUTC, which are affected by a poor transportation policy, the taxpayers are then asked to carry a huge financial burden.

It is clear that a culture of silence, secrecy, and concealment of these problems is the reason why we are not aware of these issues. As long as we continue to have more than 100 categories of allowances that can then mask what is occurring, we will always be in the dark.

We can't continue to adopt weaknesses in the Jamaican economy by employing individuals on a partisan basis without information being made available about their competence qualifications and salary. That provides reputational risk, if not failure, for the corporation.

In the end, with all the proposed changes to update corporate governance and remove breakdowns in accountability and transparency, the society will be none the wiser if tribalism continues to determine employment and if secrecy is the hallmark for one-upmanship.

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author and lecturer. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.