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EDITORIAL - PM's faux pas on Air Jamaica

Published:Friday | February 19, 2010 | 12:00 AM

PRIME MINISTER Bruce Golding will claim, with some justification, that he and his government were severely provoked. But provocation notwithstanding, we view as wrong and unfortunate Mr Golding's very public and savage assessment of a bid for an employee buyout of Air Jamaica, led by the airline's pilots.

We, of course, previously agreed with the prime minister that the government's divestment of the loss-making airline could not be based on sentiment. Any would-be purchaser had to be certain of the cash to run the business to assure the Jamaican taxpayers that they would not be called on again to bail out Air Jamaica.

Moreover, we have been concerned at what Mr Roderick Rainford, a Jamaican who served as secretary general of the Caribbean Community, characterised in a letter published yesterday as "the visceral hostility on the part of some to the possibility of Trinidadian/Caribbean Airlines ownership, without regard to any other consideration".

Sincerely patriotic

"It would be a happy circumstance, indeed, if this admittedly sincerely patriotic outlook (of keeping Air Jamaica in Jamaican hands) coincided with a strategy that is technically, financially and economically optimal for the country," Mr Rainford observed.

But unlike ourselves and Mr Rainford, perhaps, the prime minister does not, at this time, properly enjoy the luxury of free and unguarded public assessment of the bid by the pilots - a point he noted last week when he commented in broad terms on the history of the divestment process and the late involvement of the pilot/employee group.

Indeed, it is acknowledged, including by Contractor General Greg Christie, that the pilots/employees did not submit an offer within the time set by the administration for tenders and that their bid came when negotiations with other parties were well under way.

Even at that, Mr Golding suggested that their offer had not been summarily rejected. It remained in the queue in the event that the administration cannot close a deal with Caribbean Airlines, a possibility that, however, appears unlikely.

Wrong assumptions

Perhaps peeved at claims by the pilots that they had been misled by the government and that the PM spoke untruths in Parliament, Mr Golding has publicly flayed the quality of the business plan offered by the pilot/employee group.

According to the prime minister, the group made wrong assumptions about redundancy payments due to staff - which have been factored into their projected equity - and have shown no evidence beyond naming private-equity firms through which they planned to source additional capital.

Said Mr Golding: "It is ... a gross exaggeration to suggest that it has identified sources of financing if this means anything more than identifying sources that it hopes will seek to identify sources of financing."

Any such public analysis of the pilot/employee offer ought properly to come from the Air Jamaica privatisation review group, and only after a breakdown of talks with Caribbean Airlines and after the business plan of the Jamaican group has been fully and unprejudicially reviewed.

As it now stands, the pilots and their supporters can properly claim that their position has been prejudiced by Mr Golding precipitous utterance.

Someone once remarked that ministers don't have the luxury of thinking aloud on policy matters. That goes doubly for prime ministers.

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