In the last few weeks, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, led by the People's National Movement, was called on to respond to several troubling allegations that suggest ministries were forging ahead with the signing of multi-million-dollar contracts in the midst of an election campaign. On Wednesday, Trade and Industry Minister Mariano Browne denied that the government had signed a contract worth US$17 million to access as many as 25 new aircraft to revamp the Caribbean Airlines fleet. Just a few days before, Works and Transport Minister Colm Imbert dismissed claims that a $4-billion-dollar contract was signed for a proposed highway between San Fernando and Mayaro. "Tenders have been invited for the proposed highway between San Fernando and Mayaro and the highway between San Fernando and Point Fortin," Imbert clarified, noting that the government was at least two months away from contract signings for the proposed highway works.
In late April, the government signed the Maritime Boundary Delimitation Treaty between Trinidad and Tobago and Grenada, defining the boundary line of jurisdiction between the two countries. What should have been a matter of routine government administration raised eyebrows, because of its proximity to the announcement of the election date and the possibility that it breached the due process of Trinidad and Tobago's laws because there was no opportunity for Cabinet, dissolved in the wake of the dissolution of Parliament, to ratify the treaty. Further to that, at the time of the signing, no information about the specifics of the boundary agreement was available. In the wake of the very vocal concerns about the boundary agreement with Barbados, it would have seemed clear that the government should have proceeded with the Grenada treaty in a spirit of absolute adherence to protocol and transparency.
The most recent concerns about the PNM government's apparent willingness to proceed with the nation's business as if it were not engaged in pitched political battle with an Opposition party keen and eager to displace it, found root in the troubled soil of WASA. On Thursday, Kamla Persad-Bissessar claimed that a contract between WASA and a newly-formed company, Merhav Mekorot Development Trinidad and Tobago Ltd (MMDTT), was executed in haste, suffered from a lack of transparency and was inappropriate, given the proximity of the election. In response, WASA's chairman, Shafeek Sultan-Khan, responded that the contract carried conditionalities which must be met before it became valid. Sultan-Khan did not clarify what those conditionalities were. Still, there are a number of aspects of the deal that remain troubling, not the least of which is the method of financing that the government has agreed to on this project.
The contract commits Trinidad and Tobago to a first payment of $66 million within 15 days of signing the contract with another payment of $66 million within 60 days of the first payment. What, it must be asked, does Trinidad and Tobago get for an investment of one-fifth of the open-ended contract fee, a sum WASA claims will be held in escrow?
This is a contract that, it is claimed, holds MMDTT liable for just $66 million, should there be irreconcilable breaches of the contract arrangement. While WASA's analysts may have been entranced by the capabilities of the Israeli state waterworks firm behind the special purpose company formed for the Trinidad and Tobago project, PSA labour leader Watson Duke was far less impressed, calling on workers to boycott the project. Minister of Foreign Affairs Paula Gopee-Scoon dismissed concerns about the timing of the Grenada boundary signing.
"It is a completion of work," she said. On the WASA deal, Shafeek Sultan-Khan said: "Whichever government comes into power will have to deal with this." And both may well be right, but there is fact, and then there are the protocols of governance that should have been observed. Once the elections were called, Parliament and the Cabinet dissolved and the nation placed in the flux state that attends continuous campaigning for public office, it would have been far more appropriate for the Government to shift to maintenance mode, managing the business of the country while notifying its development partners that the conclusion of business in hand would need to wait until the election outcome on May 25. Supreme confidence in the election result may have driven these unfortunate decisions, but they resulted in unnecessary distractions that could have been easily avoided in the interests of more transparent and appropriate governance procedures.