Perception and an ailing economy

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It surprises no one that perception can have create or destroy organisations, societies and economies, if left to unfold with unbalanced energies for too long.

Trinidad and Tobago has been hurt, quite substantially over the past years, by perception, either by mismanaging publicity campaigns, or by using negative perception for personal and political pursuits.

The issue of corruption and shady business have dogged Trinidad and Tobago for quite some time, and particularly in the past decade, with the re-election of the PNM Administration in 2007, the subsequent rise of the UNC/People’s Partnership Administration in 2010, and the return of the PNM in 2015.

Across three administrations in 10 years, one stubborn stain has been that of the perception of corruption, which has been fought aggressively on the part of Governments denying allegations, and Oppositions cooking them up to destroy political opponents and create paths to power for themselves.

The Perception of Corruption

In January 2017, it was revealed that Trinidad and Tobago slid four points on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), from 39 in 2015 to 35 in 2016. The points are ranked out of 100.

The CPI measures the perceived levels of public sector corruption in 176 countries/territories around the world. It is essential to note that the CPI is based on data and information from the previous years and not the current period.

In 2007, the CPI standing for Trinidad and Tobago was 34; by 2008, with the same PNM Administration holding office, it went to 36, where it remained until 2010

Between 2010 and 2013, the CPI moved to 32, but then to 38; by 2016, it stood at 35.

This country was ranked in 2016 globally at 101 out of 176 countries.

The Impact

What then about the impact of corruption perception?

A Transparency International document entitled ‘The Impact of Corruption on Growth and Inequality’ noted: “Evidence indicates that corruption is likely to adversely affect long-term economic growth through its impact on investment, taxation, public expenditures and human development. Corruption is also likely to undermine the regulatory environment and the efficiency of State institutions as rent-seeking distorts incentives and decision-making processes.”

For at least three general and three local Government elections in Trinidad and Tobago, corruption was used by Opposition parties as a major political weapon to unseat their opponents.

The sting in the tail has been little work being done to clean up that perception when administrations changed hands. The continued hum of allegations, both true and fabricated took its toll.

Attorney General Faris Al Rawi has been reported as saying that ‘crooked cops are hindering the fight against corruption’.

Al Rawi has also been reported as talking, glibly, on raids carried out by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACIB) on the offices of five contractors earlier this week. The premises of TN Ramnauth & Company, Motilal Ramhit & Sons Construction, Namalco Group of Companies, Kall Co Ltd and Fides Ltd were searched for documents related to the award of some $400 million worth of contracts by the Estate Management Business Development Company (EMBD).

While many, including Al Rawi, have acknowledged the disastrous impact of corruption on the economy and private sector as a whole, some of the same campaigners and others have unwittingly supported the orchestrated chorus of allegations, even to the extent of exhaustive legal proceedings which have on many occasions vindicated the accused companies.

Vindication, after years of allegations and legal proceedings, however, do nothing to change the fact that by the time the process is over, the businesses can face closure and dissolution.

What no one has spoken at length about is the impact of the unhindered use of corruption allegations on the private sector capacity of the economy, or the impact on social structures with the increase in levels of unemployment, social welfare applications and low/middle income housing requests.

Al Rawi’s predecessor was similarly verbose at the start of a previous PNM Administration; Glenda Morean was reported in the Newsday of 22 March 2002 as: “Attorney General Glenda Morean said yesterday that Government was pursuing eight different investigations into allegations of corruption in Trinidad and Tobago.”

By the end of an almost 10-year PNM reign, far more corruption allegations sat on the Administration’s shoulders than the backs of their opponents.

Similarly, barely two years in, corruption allegations are mounting on the shoulders of the PNM Administration, even as they accuse and counter-accuse their opponents. We wait to see the status and quantum of allegations by 2020.

Emerging Allegations

And even as the PNM’s accusation machinery appears well-oiled and at work, new allegations of corruption have emerged against the Rowley Administration, even before mid-term.

What has already come to light include:

(i)                  Accusations that Bolt Trinidad Ltd—the company which Suzanne Williams-Imbert, the wife of Finance Minister Colm Imbert is a shareholder—was paid millions of dollars by the Housing Development Corporation (HDC);

(ii)                On two occasions, Keith Rowley appointed and fired the same person as a Cabinet Minister, despite serious allegations of misconduct hanging over that person’s head. Rowley recently confirmed the same person as a Deputy Leader of the PNM;

(iii)              Keith Rowley himself has levelled allegations of corruption at the Port Authority of Trinidad and Tobago;

(iv)              A serious and crippling debacle on the Seabridge between Trinidad and Tobago as a result of the cancellation of the service provider in place, in favour of a service provider said to be preferred by the PNM;

(v)                Fake oil – new allegations have emerged, and subsequent findings of almost $100 million in fraud being perpetrated against state-owned oil company Petrotrin by a drilling company whose principal owner is allegedly a friend of the PNM;

(vi)              Despite an increasing severe shortage of housing, two Cabinet Ministers have recently been founded to have preferentially benefitted from up-end HDC provided housing.

(A more penetrating look at corruption allegations against the PNM will come subsequently.

Economic Impact on Business

So when the game of political musical chairs starts and stops what of the casualties of harsh political bickering on businesses?

Despite the overzealous pronouncements by Al Rawi on corruption alleged to have been carried out by a number of businesses, one of those companies stand out, because it has been able to continue public project management and construction even under the PNM.

No one seems to be able to explain this glitch in the PNM’s ‘Matrix’.

Presumably using the same tendering processes, financial arrangements, pre-qualification methods, quality standards and monitoring and delivery, Kall Co which has been mercilessly pummeled by mainstream and social media aggression, has won a $400 million plus contract for the Churchill Roosevelt Highway (CRH) extension to Manzanilla.

The obvious question comes from the fact that the PNM has meandered away from delivering public procurement legislation.

That question centres on corporate governance codes, tendering and public procurement in infrastructure projects which remain more or less the same. How then could Kall Co have done something wrong because it managed projects under a previous Government, but is doing something right by doing the very same thing under the PNM Administration?

PNM allegations against Kall Co were not simply based on suspicion, but also became quite personal with a number of PNM frontliners saying that the company was a ‘special’, ‘preferred’ contractor of the former People’s Partnership (PP) administration.

Some mainstream media were falling over themselves to report PNM officials verbatim, but without checking the history and facts of Kall Co, which would have revealed a strong scent of politics coming from a wannabePandora’s box.

That is not the only oversight on the part of the mainstream media. Kall Co is no stranger to defying political allegations, which can be traced back to 2011. Back then, allegations caused a suspension of roadwork projects while the Central Audit Committee of the Ministry of Finance investigated. Engineers attached to the PURE unit and employees of a number of contractors were made unemployed.

Despite allegations being strongly made with vehement force in claiming guilt, the audit found no collusion in the award of contracts to Kall Co.

From then to now, mainstream media have also ignored a number of other balancing facts including:

·         In the last two years Kall Co bid for over 20 projects but were successful in winning only two;

·         All bids are evaluated by committees and sometimes by international consultants;

·         Kall Co’s Group Business Development Manager, Michael Arjune has publicly and categorically dismissed allegations that the company is politically aligned;

·         Kall Co was formed in 2006 and was awarded a number of contracts under the Manning PNM Administration;

·         While the media have reported on the 2016 cancellation of the Maracas Bay project, they have not mentioned that Kall Co is prevented from discussing the issue due to legal proceedings;

·         Kall Co’s work at expansion has now seen the company bidding for projects across the region;

·         Among the major projects delivered by Kall Co are Phase 4B of the Diego Martin Highway Extension; Desilting of Blue River Mouth; Construction of Namdevco Sea Lots Market; Desilting of Caroni River Mouth; Site works for the Waste Water Treatment Ponds at Tamana Intech Park; Flood Mitigation and Erosion Control El Dorado Main Drain and Landslip Repair on Solomon Hochoy Highway at Macaulay Flyover.

·         Kall Co has been successful in its bids because of its capacity to deliver, with two asphalt plants, a concrete plant, over 100 dump trucks, 155 concrete trucks, 15 tractor trucks, a fleet of excavators of various sizes, steam rollers, spreaders, motor graders, dredgers, a tug boat and cranes.

It would be inaccurate to call this reporting on these facts a matter of publicity. We are talking about one business that was almost made into the PNM’s ‘bobolee’ for what appears to be political expediency, and to shield the Government’s rank failure to manage the social and economic affairs of Trinidad and Tobago capably.

If this business went under because of protracted politicking, almost 1200 employed men and women would have lost their jobs, and millions of dollars in corporate responsibility support to numerous communities would have dried up. Support such as:

·         Children specific Christmas events across Trinidad and Tobago;

·         Support for the Trinidad and Tobago Red Steel franchise as principal partner in 2015;

·         Intervention in 2014 where Kall CO funded a sports trip for 81 young people (10 to 17 years) to take part in a charity football tournament in Barbados;

·         Sponsorship for 24 children of the Kolkata Knight Riders.

While some may be happy to tolerate excessive and wild allegations of corruption back and forth, this is not the kind of business we should be willing to become entangled in political cross-hairs and possibly destroyed.

Politics has never put sustainable income into the pockets of citizens; public institutions, and the private sector have and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

If we consider the ‘average’ PNM Administration, and the rapidfire allegations that go nowhere, how many more businesses will have to face the wrath of shielded incompetence before we make it clear that the private sector must not be dragged into political mud for the sake of pettiness?

Are we really willing to allow our politics to destroy the same private sector that we want to lift us out of economic chaos?

 

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