Wednesday 21st May, 2008

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Only a credible probe will do

  • JSC on which political bias is entrenched is quite worthless.
  • JSC must have power to sum-mon witnesses, documents.
  • Independents must hold trump card on JSC.

The notion put forward that the Government has a responsibility to support Udecott and any of the other special purpose state enterprises is fine for propaganda effect and natural expectation from a Government which created and monitors these enterprises.

However, such an assertion, no matter its repetition, does not address the need for an independent and clinical probe into Udecott by experts who can pick up the scent of the alleged corrupt activity.

Therefore, a regularly established joint select committee on which political bias is entrenched is quite worthless. The Government members, who have all sworn there is nothing untoward to be found in the activities of Udecott, and with their political necks depending on it, will see and hear no evil.

On the other side, the Opposition MPs on a JSC will see a pay-off behind every Udecott project and expenditure of billions.

The Independent senator who is to chair the committee will find himself or herself attempting to part political wars at every turn; more than likely a stalemate will emerge out of the inquiry.

Could a possibility for advance emerge from the seemingly intractable positions adopted by the Government and the Opposition to allow this vital political process of accounting for the spending of the national patrimony, and to determine the financial probity or otherwise of Government’s mechanism, the special purpose state enterprises? Perhaps.

The United National Congress has admirably exerted pressure on Prime Minister Patrick Manning. He must now outline terms of reference of the JSC to persuade the Opposition and the nation that his Government is serious about investigating Udecott, notwithstanding his own position that all is well.

The Government must therefore agree to have Parliament give power to the JSC to summon witnesses and documents; to recruit the services of forensic accountants; to contract legal experts with particular competence to decipher illegal corporate activities in procurement and other such matters; to receive guidance from people with expertise and knowledge of the construction industry; and an open hand to find whatever expertise and experience necessary to determine if Udecott has been flouting the country’s laws.

All of the above is possible in the Standing Orders which govern the operations of select committees of Parliament.

The fact of the evidence being given in public and that which may be found by the forensic accountants and legal experts, also released in the public domain utilising parliamentary privilege, will not allow for any attempts at cover-up by any of the sides. And here the population, including individuals and institutions, must monitor the public proceedings to raise the alarm bell if justified.

Further, the terms of reference to be agreed to by the Parliament must include the power of the JSC to report to the Parliament. And if there is a hint of wrong-doing, the JSC must have the power to instantly forward the report to the Director of Public Prosecution for action.

In order to prevent either side from attempting to stymie the functioning of the committee, there should be not be a requirement for a quorum for the committee to sit and progress with the inquiry. Therefore neither side could attempt to frustrate the work of the committee by absenting itself; it will do so at the risk of not having an opportunity to advance and/or defend its case.

It is expected that the Commissioner of Police, too, will appreciate that he has a public responsibility to have a team of specially equipped officers keep a watching brief on the proceedings of the JSC to determine whether there is evidence to be further investigated.

Even so, to assuage the strong public call for an open commission of enquiry where testimony and evidence are given, the Parliament must also give the power to the JSC to call into being such a commission. This of course means that the Government, the Prime Minister, must agree to accept such a recommendation from the JSC.

And this brings us to the question of the balance of the JSC. There should be an uneven number with Independents holding the trump card, notwithstanding whatever the tradition of having the Government hold the majority. This is a special circumstance and the Government cannot be allowed to investigate itself, that is if the findings are to have credibility.

Empowering the JSC in a manner as suggested above is really the most viable option open to the Government if it is to survive the negative political fallout of attempting to engage a watered-down inquiry.

Any inquiry that simply ignores the position taken by the UNC and the very loud chorus of public opinion for a probing, vigorous investigation must attract significant political fallout.

If the Government were to seek to sweep past the protest of the Opposition, a protest which has deep resonance in the body politic, and move to pack the JSC with Independent senators, with the UNC refusing to participate in the process, it will pay the political price.

The Independents themselves will have to be individually, politically wise and circumspect in arriving at their positions to participate or not in the JSC. Any easy acceptance of a government fiat will destroy their personal credibility and question the independence of the President’s men and women.

The Government has much more riding on this one than the Opposition. If it is found that Udecott has been infested with corrupt activity of one kind or the other, and if by extension it is found that the reporting mechanisms are inadequate to monitor the company’s expenditure of billions of dollars, that could cost Prime Minister Manning and his Government quite a price as they have staked their political integrity and competence on this one.

If on the other hand a probing and credible inquiry reveals Udecott and its operations to be like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion, it would certainly give a shot in the arm to Prime Minister Manning, his Government and their methods of operating.

Only such an inquiry, structured in the manner suggested or any other that allows for transparency and deep probing, and one accepted by the Opposition and the national community, would be acceptable.

This is the reality and Prime Minister Manning, his ministers and the Udecott board, inclusive of the brawlers, the velvety smooth and the cunning, must realise that falling over each other to profess the integrity of the company with evangelist-like testimonials mean nothing.

The population will only be convinced by a quality and credible probe into Udecott and if as has been said so often, the Government and Udecott have nothing to hide, then let the inquiry begin.

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