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Procurement scandals - not just in Jamaica

Published:Monday | April 9, 2012 | 12:00 AM

John Rapley, Contributor

GOVERNMENTS ABUSE the public trust. They do it in poor countries, they do it in rich ones. In Jamaica, it's buses and roads. In Canada, it's fighter jets. The causes and tactics are similar, it is the scale that differs. Canada, with ten times the people and hundred times the wealth of Jamaica, can afford to dabble in bigger figures.

And it does. Canada's auditor general, who plays a role not unlike Jamaica's contractor general - and is equally disliked by governments and appreciated by citizens for it - recently revealed that the Conservative government misled the public about the cost of a programme to buy new fighter jets for the military. The overrun comes in at something like CDN$10 billion. At current rates of exchange, that approaches a trillion Jamaican dollars.

That's a lot of spare change. But this sort of thing is not unusual in any country, especially in the area of specialised procurement. When it comes to things like buses and roads, we can all guess what it should cost to get things up and running. So we can smell a rat when it tries to slip by us. But when procurement or expenditure requires a high degree of specialised knowledge, bureaucrats and politicians can easily use verbiage to pull the wool over our eyes. They can persuade us to leave the thinking to the experts.

Common danger

Of course, that would be fine if the experts are trustworthy. But when they can repeatedly sneak expenditure past the public, the temptation for bureaucrats to do it all the time grows strong. And government departments, like any institution, have their own interests. The ability of public officials to confuse the public interest with their own is a common danger in government.

Defence procurement is notorious for this. Soldiers love fancy weapons, regardless of whether they need them. American politicians, for instance, are always bemoaning the way their generals are slipping high-expenditure, and sometimes useless, items onto a shopping list for which they want a limitless credit card.

Generals and bureaucrats drove the Canadian scandal, and heads will need to roll. But generals and bureaucrats aren't elected. Their superiors are. And the citizenry looks to them to maintain diligent supervision so as to ensure their hard-earned tax dollars aren't wasted.

This is why, even when a minister can plausibly maintain he didn't know what was going on, he must take the fall and resign. It will be difficult for the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, not to put a political head or two on the chopping block.

Hard to escape

The greater difficulty is that it will be hard for Harper himself to escape the taint of this scandal. After all, he is an affable control freak who barely lets his ministers belch in private without some aide to the prime minister giving the go-ahead. Trying to persuade ordinary Canadians that this one escaped his attention will be a tall order.

For the moment, his saving grace is that unlike the recent Jamaican scandals, his own broke shortly after, not before, an election. The Conservative government can be grateful it managed to get this one past the nation in last year's poll. Had voters known then that their government was possibly lying to them while indulging the brass' whims, it would have struggled to obtain the parliamentary majority which now keeps it afloat.

Of course, as Jamaicans know all too well, some scandals can have long shelf-lives. From Trafigura to Dudus, when a scandal becomes a symbol that hangs around a government, it can follow it all the way to the next election. For its part, the present Canadian government has acquired an air of secrecy and disdain for parliament. If it doesn't get a bit of democratic religion over this issue, its sins may follow it for a long time.

John Rapley is a research associate at the International Growth Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rapley.john@gmail.com.