Tue | Jul 7, 2020

Martin Henry | Is Andrew Wheatley’s head the answer?

Published:Friday | June 29, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry

There was I, standing uncomfortably in the long receiving line to welcome the minister, who had kept his promise, "I shall return."

I was at the time working out of the Ministry of Development, Planning and Production, not for the MDPP. So you see, I have considerable experience with superministries, including D.K. Duncan's 1970s Ministry of National Mobilisation, on which to base my dislike of the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation.

As the project manager for a UNDP-financed project, I had to have a working base in a ministry. I was uncomfortable, stuck in that receiving line into which every living soul in the offices had been shepherded. I was uncomfortable on two counts. I was not a civil servant. And I didn't think civil servants should be so civil to their temporary political bosses as to stand in long lines to welcome them to office.

But the minister received a hero's welcome. P.J. Patterson was making his way back into Government as a minister after his unceremonious exit over the Shell waiver scandal. Shortly after that, he succeeded Michael Manley as president of the PNP and went on to become Jamaica's longest-serving prime minister to date, making significant contributions to the nation's development.

There have since been the trumpet calls for Phillip Paulwell's resignation or firing as minister for IT and telecommunications over the NetServ fiasco. Fenton Ferguson was hounded out of Health over the dead babies scandal. And there have been many more in the parade and charade of the Opposition trumpeting calls on cue for ministers to resign.

But the biggest catch of all was Bruce Golding, pressured out of the prime ministership over the Manatt-Dudus extradition issue.


Deliver a revolution


No real charge of dereliction of duty or malfeasance was ever plastered on Paulwell over NetServ. He went on to deliver a revolution in prying open the telecommunications market from monopoly control and delivering considerable punch in mining and energy. LNG, for example, now coming on stream as a cleaner and more efficient replacement fuel for oil, is a Paulwell baby, now walking. Which, by the way, has serious implications for the embattled Petrojam.

When the bloodletting had subsided, it turned out that Fenton Ferguson had no serious ministerial culpability in the Klebsiella bacteria deaths of the ultra-vulnerable neonates in the public hospitals.

Even after a commission of enquiry, no case has been established that Prime Minister Bruce Golding lied, colluded with a criminal candidate for extradition, or misappropriated the powers of the Jamaican State. All of which would have attracted criminal sanctions beyond being hounded out of office.

Andrew Wheatley, minister of energy, is now in the cross hairs over Petrojam. When it comes to resignation calls, the Opposition PNP has rich experience both in being shafted and in shafting and is leading the charge for Wheatley's resignation or firing from the Cabinet.

Rallying his own troops in an NEC meeting last Sunday, including former ministers who had been under the gun, the party president called for Wheatley's head since the minister must take responsibility for the alleged breaches that occurred at Petrojam under his leadership.

"The prime minister," Dr Phillips said, "presided over the Cabinet that appointed the absentee board, with a chairman resident overseas." Then, a vague: "Someone has to answer to the issue of how the board was appointed."


The end of administration


If Wheatley should go, Wheatley's complicit boss should also go. And the leader of the Opposition very well knows that this means the end of the present administration.

The Opposition tirade continued in Parliament during the week. But Dr Phillips should remember the knife that jook sheep.

Should the issues at Petrojam bring down the Government? By all means, yes, if merited. But be careful. Jamaica may very well have to do without government if scandals, real, contrived, and imagined, are to sink administrations willy-nilly.

We are well aware of the noble Westminster tradition of the minister accepting responsibility and resigning when things go awry in their portfolio. Transplanted pure to Jamaica, where nothing works well in public administration, ministers would be resigning weekly and governments tumbling every other month. And clearly, Petrojam has not been working too well at all.

There are dozens of Petrojams out there, as the prime minister honestly acknowledged in his address on the issue to Parliament last Tuesday. But for how much of Petrojam's ills is the minister culpable, from blatant dereliction of duty, incompetence, or complicity in any improper actions? Which is all yet to be established.

There is the widespread feeling, stoked by attacking Oppositions and by media in search of sensational scandals, that a minister should and can exert personal control over every agency in his portfolio basket - something that no private-sector board chairman is expected to, or can, achieve. And then if the minister gets too involved, there are cries of interference.

Boards are appointed by the Minister to oversee the operations of agencies. Management is hired to manage. The Government has announced plans to overhaul the appointment of public-sector boards for better continuity and better performance.


Real CEO


And everybody is forgetting that the permanent secretary is the real CEO of the ministry and the chief accounting officer.

While any corruption and cronyism, which may surface from investigations, must not be overlooked, Petrojam, the country's sole oil refinery, has far deeper problems than its employment and compensation and contracting practices and management issues, which are yet to be dissected and laid bare by forensic audits. The attempted buy-back of the shares owned by Venezuela, no longer a viable partner, has not been going very well. With the JPS switching to LNG for electricity generation in some of its plants, the guaranteed sole market for heavy fuel oil is going soft. Heavy fuel oil is 45 per cent of output.

The refinery, which has, up to now, enjoyed built-in profitability, might have been one of the most attractive assets in the Government portfolio for divestment and a great candidate for citizens' ownership if its market were not under such a threat. Mining Minister Robert Montague, in his contribution to the Sectoral Debate, floated the very good idea of citizens owning shares in the bauxite companies in which the State now has a stake. Petrojam could also be a prime candidate.

As the $12-million compensation of the HR manager at Petrojam excites public anger - and envy - less-well-compensated public servants are up in arms over the inadequacy of their travel and upkeep allowances to move about to get Government's own business done. They have been agitating over basic salaries for longer. The statutory bodies have had a major distortionary effect on public-sector compensation, not to mention on management of the public service.

The Petrojam debacle, the scandal of the day, could teach us a lot about how not to run things in the public service - if we can get past the clamorous calls for Minister Wheatley's head.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator.

Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.