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#BTColumn – Face the issues and fix them

by Barbados Today Traffic
7 min read

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by this author are their own and do not represent the official position of the Barbados Today Inc.

by Dr Ronnie Yearwood

In 2017 at a public lecture titled Governance and Truth, I stated that, “In not holding the government accountable, the government becomes a deviant subculture, which lacks transparency and appears unaccountable to anyone other than itself.

What we realise from the Auditor General’s Report is that matters of governance and truth are not just administrative and legal issues.

Governance and truth can have real life consequences because valuable resources that should be allocated for the priorities of healthcare, education and housing are squandered.”

Therefore, if we had issues with the
Auditor General Report then, we must have issues with the Auditor General Report now and any future report reflecting similar issues. It is that simple. What was good for one must be good for the other.

The 2020 Auditor General’s Report, 113 pages, has been released. This is not the sort of review I still would have expected to be writing in 2021, but this is probably one of the worse reports, not necessarily because of content, but because we should not still be here, as the political class kicks the report back and forth between them.

Face it, Fix it

The current Government behaves as if it is not the Government and it is not its responsibility to fix the issues, highlighted in the Report, three years into its administration and coming close to the end of the election cycle.

I wonder when the Government will start to realise it is the Government and not the Opposition. With virtually all the seats, there is no one to blame for lack of implementation, not being able to pass laws or not being able to get the reforms we need.

It is perhaps time for this Government and its leadership to grow up and assume responsibility, because the Government is in charge. It is that simple.

It must be strange for a politician not to be able to pass the buck, because with total control, it stops with this Government.

In his defence of this Government on Brass Tacks Minister [Ryan] Straughn could not mention any big structural changes this Government has made in its three years to stop future Reports being much of the same. Anti-corruption law, Contractor-General, Freedom of Information still have not been passed.

Four Seasons

One of the issues in the Auditor General report was the $124 million dollar debt
write-off from the Four Seasons project. The Auditor General Report stated, “It has not been clearly established what was the basis for the entire write off of the investment. It was also not clear what was the nature of the investment relationship Clearwater had with the hotel owners.

The investment and subsequent write-off could not therefore be verified by the auditors.” This is important because it is a project that spans governments and importantly as we know from the public record involved the current Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, and the Special Envoy to the PM, Avinash Persaud, respectively, as lawyer and Chairman of the project.

Usually, when money is loaned, it is secured by a mortgage on the property to ensure that if the property is sold the funds received first go towards repaying the loan.  Therefore, with the write-off, who now owns the property free and clear of any debt to us taxpayers?

Who will get all of the money when the property is eventually sold?  The write-off does not make the property any easier to sell as a buyer does not care if the purchase price goes to the owner instead of a lender.  Therefore, what was the reason for the write-off?

You cannot help but “feel fah” Minister Straughn as he is regularly sent out to bat when issues of conflict, ethics or morality arise. According to the news media the Minister said that the Prime Minister had not been part of any discussions by Cabinet to write off the money for Four Seasons as the Prime Minister had recused herself.

However, our systems of governance should not have to depend on the goodwill of our leaders or their utterances of what they choose to tell us.  Also, did the Minister smell what he was shovelling?

This Prime Minister, unlike any other Prime Minister, has been heavily involved in every matter of this Government and it is well known that no decision is made without the Prime Minister.

Minister’s Straughn statement is not good enough. This is where a Freedom of Information request would have been useful. Where is the documentation to support his claim?

The matter of the write- off for Four Seasons should have been well documented not just at the final decision-making body, Cabinet, but throughout the entire decision-making process, where the Prime Minister has potential to influence the decision either directly or indirectly.

Also, why was the Minister on Brass Tacks responding to the issues in the Auditor General’s report and not doing so as provided for in the Report?

And if you do not think conflict of interest issues are serious, look no further than the recent case in the UK where the court ruled that the Government, specifically Minister Michael Gove acted unlawfully for giving his friends contracts during the Covid pandemic. The point is simple, you cannot feather your own nest, or that of others you know closely, directly or indirectly.

Breaking the law

Overall, mismanagement to the tune of millions and millions of dollars have been highlighted by the Auditor General’s Report. Yet, beyond “this was not the Government’s fault”, not a convincing word from the Government on this current situation or how they will account for any of this, the taxpayers’ money to us, the taxpayer.

If it is not the Government’s issue, I do not recall the tax-payers approving any debt write-offs, do you?  The current Government is also breaking the law at the moment in that it is a year and some late in submitting its accounts to the Auditor General for review.

Further, for all the talk about improving transparency and trying to change things, one of the easiest things the Government could do but is not doing, would be to give the Auditor General the requested resources.

It looks purposeful, and for all the consultants that have been hired and money found for new Government positions, giving the Auditor General the resources that he needs surely cannot be all that difficult. We need to be done with the excuses.

A Solution

The lack of resources and staff makes the Auditor General’s job difficult but he has persevered. We need to thank Mr. [Leigh] Trotman for his service, even if our Governments do not.  Perhaps, a solution to ensure that the Auditor General can get resources to function is to set up some sort of independent trust fund not managed
by the Government.

The Auditor General would have his own resources to function and the Government,
no matter which, could not undermine the Auditor General’s work by not providing the required resources.

We are all tired of the Auditor General having to write these sorts of reports and then we have to read them, because nothing changes. It is disheartening. However, nothing will change until we want it to and we have the leadership that actually wants change.

Dr Ronnie Yearwood is a lecturer in law, lawyer and social commentator. Email: yearwood.r.r.f@gmail.com

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