Ronnie Thwaites, Contributor
"NOT EVEN Caesar Augustus wielded such power" was my reflection when the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) heard of the arbitrary excesses carried out by the National Works Agency (NWA) and the Ministry of Transport and Works in the operation of the Jamaica Development Infrastructure Programme (JDIP).
Caesar would have been forced to yield by the Roman Senate in the face of such arrant corruption. Prime Minister Andrew Holness likes the classics so he ought to heed the wisdom of the ancients.
It turns out from the report of the auditor general, abjectly but in the end nobly admitted as accurate, by the Transport and Works Permanent Secretary Dr Alwin Hales, that just as the Opposition had warned for more than two years, the JDIP has been carefully crafted to avoid all scrutiny and accountability.
Hiding from the truth?
Not a single member of the Government attended last week Tuesday's PAC sitting. Why? Afraid of the embarrassment which was so evident the previous week at the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee, or too busy campaigning? Vainly, I look around for Michael Stern or Andrew Gallimore to bleat the familiar defence that the same thing or worse happened under the People's National Party so what's the big deal ... .
The auditor general began by resolutely defending the audit process carried out on JDIP. Dr Hales is apologetic. From the start, it is apparent that he, the chief accounting officer, has been "left out of the loop" of JDIP decision-making. His answers make it clear that the direction of this project was handled by Patrick Wong and then Minister of Transport and Works Mike Henry. I commend him for his disarming frankness, even as he accepts responsibility for whatever an agency of his ministry has done wrong.
Although the loan agreement with the China Exim Bank specifically leaves the option for Jamaica to have conducted a tender among Chinese contractors, our Government chose to ignore this, signed on China Harbour with obviously scant care or perverse intent. So who can say we got the best price? There is no answer from the officials.
Dr Hales volunteers that it is in the superficial monitoring of the JDIP work orders where the problems of over-expenditure and questionable value lie. Remember, we are talking about billions of dollars here. This, the largest and most expensive infrastructure loan we have had, is being run minus the independent quality and cost consultant normal for projects of this kind. Why?
Then there is the revelation that the profit and overhead margin to China Harbour has lately been moved up from the original 20 per cent of the project cost by a further five per cent for reasons which none of the officials before the PAC can explain. Could this be a kickback?
(I sat there listening to how we throw away big money and thinking of the unmet needs of the people of Central Kingston and remembering too the strident defences by Henry, Audley Shaw, Holness, Bruce Golding and others over the last two years in the House whenever there was a query about the structure and operations of JDIP).
The people's predicament worsens though. Morais Guy, thorough and analytic as usual, begins to add up the waste and squander. Twenty-five per cent overheads and profit for the main contractor; 10 per cent each for the sub and sub-subcontractors; then five per cent for the NWA and two and one-half for the Road Maintenance Fund - all this creamed off the top "before one load of marl is dropped". The ministry officials have no rebuttal. So it is true: the taxpayer will have to pay back the full hundred of the loan from the China Exim Bank with interest, but will only derive works and roads equivalent to less than half of the money.
Injudicious political motives
All this happens the day before Henry resigns and Hales goes on leave. Michael Peart is implacable. The waste has been established, but the political motive is now laid bare. The South Manchester MP relates in excruciating detail the pointless runaround he has to go through to find out which of the badly rutted roads in his constituency fall under the JDIP. None do. Here's why: 95 per cent of the money spent in Manchester is allocated to one constituency. Guess whose?
Hales, Patterson and the whole phalanx of ministry and NWA officials sitting in Gordon House have little to say. Project choices were apparently decided by the Local Government Department, Wong and Henry.
And then the final devastating admission of the day: the works given out for this year, paid for and yet to be paid for, could well exceed by half the budgeted sum of US$100 million. Where will this money come from? It can be no coincidence that all this is happening during an election period when the ruling party is obviously awash with money. Whose money? Remember the minister who told us two weeks ago that $50 million for conference was "chicken feed".
No, Mr Holness, check your reference to the classics again. What is going on here, of which the half has not yet been told, resembles more the rapine of the Dark Ages than Caesar's Pax Romana.
Why should the majority of Jamaicans suffer needless want and pay taxes for this to happen to their money?
Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Central Kingston and a member of the Opposition People's National Party.