Two peas in a pod

Published: Friday | May 4, 2012 Comments 0

By Peter Espeut

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

When the JLP administration came to power in 2007, it began badly. You will recall that when Michael Hylton stepped aside as solicitor general, the Public Service Commission (PSC) - an independent body established under the Constitution of Jamaica - appointed Stephen Vasciannie, then a deputy solicitor general, to the vacant post.

However, Prime Minister Bruce Golding did not like the PSC members' decision, and fired them. A new Public Service Commission (remember: this is an independent body established under the Constitution of Jamaica) was appointed and the job of solicitor general eventually went to Douglas Leys.

That JLP government continually ran afoul of the Office of the Contractor General (OCG); we can recall the contretemps over the awarding of subcontracts under both the Jamaica Development Infrastructure Programme (JDIP) and the four-lane Palisadoes Highway (which the minister denied was to be four lanes, but the works are so wide, it now looks like it is going to be six lanes), both projects awarded to China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC).

A lot of JLP subcontractors 'eat a food' over those two massive projects; indeed, they may be said to have enjoyed an eight-course banquet.

The OCG exposed the corruption, the full details of which have not yet come to light. The PNP, in opposition - wringing its hands in delight - pledged to strengthen the powers of the OCG when it came to power.

"The more things change, the more they remain the same," said French novelist Alphonse Karr. Now that the PNP is in power, it has also begun badly. It has announced the establishment of an Independent Oversight Panel (IOP) to monitor three large infrastructure projects, two of which may be executed by CHEC. The reason given for the appointment of this 'independent' panel is because the government agencies responsible for issuing permits for projects to proceed take too long, and are a hindrance to 'development' and 'progress'.

First of all, I don't see how a panel unilaterally appointed by the Government can be considered 'independent'. This is why the Jamaican Constitution requires appointments to the judiciary, the civil service and the police to be made by specially appointed services commissions which are supposed to be 'independent' of the ruling party, but which usually do its bidding - or else.

Unholy alliance

As we have come to learn, bipartisan agreement is not the same thing as independence. Our traditional political parties are at each other's throats about most things, but on certain matters they are in full agreement: they don't want to dismantle their garrisons, they don't want political donations to be made public, they don't want the assets of politicians to be made public, they don't want serious environmental scrutiny of government projects, and they want to be able to award lucrative contracts to their friends.

Whichever party is in power, the other side will usually collaborate on these matters, for they know, sooner or later, the shoe will be on the other foot.

It seems to me that both the PNP and the JLP - and their sycophants and apologists - are lining up to agree that the OCG is a hindrance to 'development' and 'progress' because it insists that internationally accepted procurement guidelines be adhered to strictly; just as they both agree that application of internationally accepted guidelines for environmental sustainability will inhibit 'development' and 'progress'. Now we are hearing that we have to 'balance ...', which usually means abandoning the internationally accepted guidelines to facilitate friends and unsustainable development.

I wonder if the focus on the OCG - which the IOP cannot bypass - is to conceal the fact that it is really the work of the NRCA and NEPA that are to be circumvented?

It takes effort and time to adhere to procurement best practices and environmental best practices. Governments want to fast-track project approvals and permits, often taking short cuts which lead to corruption and environmental degradation.

Why this unholy rush to do business with CHEC? The investigations into any possible impropriety with JDIP and the Palisadoes project are not yet complete. And CHEC is under investigation elsewhere in the world for bribing public officials.

What are the terms and provisions of the agreement between the Government and CHEC? Why the indecent haste to proceed to build the north-south leg of Highway 2000 which has been determined to be financially unviable? Who is going to benefit? Why is the JLP not protesting?

The JLP and the PNP are two peas in a pod. And as another eight-course banquet is about to be served, 'dawg nyam we suppah!'

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.

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