Sunday 9th December, 2007

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Overdue attack on ‘business as usual’

Finance Minister Karen Nunes Tesheira has reassuringly assigned “priority” status to the distribution of land long promised to former sugar workers.

New on the job, Ms Nunez Tesheira is thus going where her predecessors, Prime Minister Patrick Manning and former junior finance ministers, had never gone.

She is proceeding with urgency in the direction of correcting a manifest injustice to workers whose only fault had been to take the Government’s word.

It is just as well that, even in advance of reading Justice Lennox Deyalsingh’s decision, she must agree with his finding:

“Government’s lack of the sense of urgency with this matter is, in my view, tantamount to an abuse of power.”

Vexed question

The loss-making, State-owned Caroni 1975 Ltd had for been decades a vexed question that had claimed the at least rhetorical attention of successive administrations.

From early 2002, the Manning administration evidently saw the Caroni question as one it must determinedly resolve and with relative swiftness.

As it later did with BWIA, another haemorrhaging state enterprise, the Government ended the agonies of indecision and uncertainty. It resolutely set about closing those entities seen to have no promising future under traditional arrangements except as endless claimants on Treasury funds.

The promise of land as part of a settlement package to workers set to lose their sugar-industry jobs, was obviously meant to neutralise opposition to the closure of a company, and an industry that had constituted both a lifeline and a way of life for tens of thousands.

A vexed question escalated, however, into a vexing matter that, with the litigation enterprise of Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, reached the High Court for judicial review.

It is now notorious that lawyers for the Government sought to weasel out of the land-distribution pledge by arguing it did not confer a legitimate expectation.

Seeking to have it both ways, however, the State also declared it had been taking steps to prepare the leases for the workers.

Justice Deyalsingh rejected the proposition, startling in its implication, that the workers had no legitimate right to expect the Prime Minister to keep his word. The judgment also held that steps allegedly being taken to fulfill the pledge were far too halting to mark good faith.

That not a single plot of land had been distributed in the four years up to mid-2007 was scandalous, and he properly denounced such foot-dragging:

“Government’s attitude seems to have been ‘business as usual,’ not really concerned about the frustration that delay in meeting the promise was causing.”

The judge went further. He discredited the authorities’ “prognosis” for the completion date of lease arrangements, noting that earlier deadlines had not been met.

As has been well demonstrated, the Government’s patience with its own inefficiencies amounts to an arrogant presumption that the public should simply be prepared to wait and wait and wait.

Lower standards

In all its spheres (health, education, transport notably) public administration sets lower and lower standards for service and performance.

The over-centralised Manning Cabinet system is geared more to securing control than to ensuring productivity and performance.

It is encouraging, though long overdue, that the High Court is signalling impatience with “business as usual.” Justice Deyalsingh has set action dates for implementation of his ruling.

The Government may appeal. But its doing so will have the effect of postponing yet again the fulfillment of what was meant to be taken as a solemn pledge to a powerless sector of the society.

“I find that the promise to the former sugar workers has not been kept,” Justice Deyalsingh wrote, “and that their legitimate expectation has been, and is being, frustrated by the lack of reasonably expeditious action.”

From that ruling, and by any fair-minded assessment, the Government has already lost a moral case.

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