Fri | Dec 15, 2017

Mark Wignall | Minister Montague, this looks bad

Published:Sunday | December 3, 2017 | 12:00 AM
National Security Minister Robert Montague (left) and Deputy Commissioner of Police Clifford Blake (centre) look on as Assistant Commissioner Devon Watkis examines a police service vehicle. The occasion was the handover of 30 used cars to the JCF on July 3. The ministry’s multimillion-dollar contract with O’Brien’s International Car Sales and Rentals has been plunged into controversy.

The Ministry of National Security awards a contract to O'Brien's International Car Sales & Rentals Ltd on January 17, 2017. By the middle of the year, the company writes back to the ministry, seeking a three-month extension on the delivery of the vehicles.

The three-month extension letter was basically the company on a complaint trip, telling the ministry that it was having problems sourcing the specific type of vehicles, experiencing shipping and Customs-clearance delays. It also complained of its failure to secure the necessary waivers so that just in case the company died, it could be buried in peace, but it would eventually see all it friends and earthly car parts in its heavenly incarnation.

The Government granted the company the extension to the beginning of September 2017. In the interim, the company was still bawling that it wanted GCT and SCT waivers and indicated that it wanted the Government to pay these costs.

At first, the ministry stood bravely and insisted that it was the duty of the company to meet these costs. At some later stage, the picture changed and the security ministry communicated the idea to the finance ministry that it was seeking waivers for these tax payments. Hmm?

By the beginning of November, the finance ministry informed the national security ministry that it had no intention of entertaining the waivers of those tax payments. It all went downhill from there as the security ministry was forced to inform O'Brien's that the waivers were totally off the table and that it wanted delivery of the vehicles by the end of November 2017.

Or else. Terms of the contract. Result? To date, only 30 of the 200 vehicles ordered have been delivered.

Two questions jump out at me. First, who is O'Brien's such that not many people know of its involvement in the importation and sale of cars at that level? If its great fame and success have eluded me, it means that I need to get out more.

Second, which contractor doing business with the Government now is not aware that under IMF guidelines, the slush bucket of tax waivers is on a freezing trip?

I will admit that at the time of writing this column, I had not researched the basic guidelines covering the granting of this contract to O'Brien's. We are told that the company came in with the cheapest bid. So?

Way back in the 1970s, I knew of a public auction where one wealthy man simply paid off two other bidders early in the game. After that, he had his way. I know of another situation where he was not too interested in buying the goods being sold, yet he pitched one bidder against the other. For a price, of course.

A company coming to the table with the lowest bid does not necessarily mean that any committee assigned to debate the merits of the bidders is forced to pick that low bidder. The greater assumption should be that those occupying seats on such a committee would be knowledgeable about the matters, the market, and the possible players involved.

 

How will the PM react?

 

The great albatross hanging around the neck of this JLP administration is the runaway murder rate. The JLP administration did not invent the present mad rush of murders. Nor can many of us say with certainty that the recent PNP administration was itself complicit in the madness.

What we do know, however, is that both political parties have had their selective moments in the not-so-far-off past when they used to hang around, and give succour to, the incubation chambers of badmanism, gun play, donship, and guns draped in the colours of the respective parties. That we know, so we accept it as part of our nasty history and move on.

In the 2016 election campaign, Andrew Holness made a campaign promise of perpetual peace among our people to the point where we would be able to sleep with our doors open. Sensible people had a duty to themselves not to buy into such political crap, but at the same time, we accepted that politicians had to make full use of hyperbole once they were consumed by the heady brew of politics from the podium.

And so if many of us knew that Holness was purely on to his one-upmanship game with the PNP, it still does not require that we tear away from his political rÈsumÈ that fantastical political promise.

Our national security minister, Robert Montague, is probably the first minister on record to openly admit that he did not want to be assigned to the security ministry. He did, however, inform the nation that he would give it his best shot, even if many of us would be tempted to say to him, "Minister, we do not want you to give it your best shot. Just get the job done!"

The scandalous car matters will not make the security ministry look good, even if the minister himself is shown to be safe and secure from the delays and the poor execution of the car policy. One would have thought that even if powerful forces in the Government - wanted to open up the bidding market to relatively newer players, the greatest of concerns would have been the smooth roll out of the loudly announced policy.

Because of that, the bidding committee members should have resisted the temptation to go with the low bid, and, instead, given the go-ahead to a company well established and in a position to stand costs that newcomers would find to be a game-killing gambit. Some would have bawled, and others would have fumed.

 

Where now, Minister Montague?

 

If we should make the assumption that Bobby Montague has a broad back and is made of solid Jamaican strong back, he should realise that the entire fate of this JLP administration is riding on the success of his ministry.

The PM may not be too disposed to reshuffle him out of the senior ranks of the Cabinet. Montague is not only a man who the PM knows is in touch with all possible levels of political and ministerial cognition, but he has been stung too often to go any other place but where it leads to policy success.

How is this to be achieved, especially where the minister has decided to keep his mouth shut instead of opening up to the public?

One first approach is to agree with many people in this country that ZOSO is not exactly going anywhere. Isn't it, Mr Minister, just another police ops plan instead of the game-changer that you believed it would have become?

Isn't it quite obvious, Mr Minister, that we are likely to end the year at close to the 1,600-plus that 2005 gave us? When that number is added to a time when the JLP administration had rolled out its best game-changing anti-crime plan, how will that all look when it comes out of the wash at the wrong end?

I do not believe that Minister Montague is in danger of losing his job for the simple reason that this country has had enough time to fully assess the generational, political, and social face of criminality in this country, and many of us have concluded that it is much more complex than placing a face in a place, where previously, there was another face.

I would ideally prefer that our prime minister and our security minister level with us and let us know how secure they are in the belief that what they have placed before this nation is the best approach to fighting criminality amid the meagre resources available.

- Mark Wignall is a political- and public-affairs commentator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and observemark@gmail.com.