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Lacking courage, lacking conviction

Done deal: Luc Allary, regional director Caribbean and Central America with the Canadian Commercial Corporation, and Minister of Finance Bob Richards shake hands after signing an agreement for the development of a new airport in November last year

Criticism is good. Criticism is healthy. Personally, I welcome it. If it is constructive, so much the better. Critical thinking is, well, critical, to informed national debate on the issues of the day. Like on the airport, yes.

But the one thing we can do without, mind you, are the cheap shots. You know the ones, those that are excessively partisan and unnecessarily personal, delivered far too often from behind pseudonyms. I get my fair share, no problem, but it is difficult to give much credence to those who lack the courage of their convictions to pen their names.

Sorry, I am being too kind. They lack courage; conviction, too, maybe.

There. Got that off my chest. The fact is I rather enjoyed (smile) being taken to task last week for lacking imagination when it came to the proposed new airport deal and this criticism, how ironic, from someone who signed off as REALIST!

I do not know about you, Mr Editor, but imagination is probably what got us into financial trouble in the first place. You will not have to dig too deep or delve too distant to grasp the point. Too many people in too many places imagined we could manage no matter what. Still, I thought REALIST fairly set out the other side.

So here we are. The economy and state of Government finances is what it is and, so yes, we are forced to think outside the box to examine closely and reappraise what we do have. I have no problem with that. Absolutely none. But, speaking for myself, I prefer to err on the side of caution when talking about a multi hundred million dollar project like a new airport and locking Bermuda into any deal that will span 30 to 40 years.

But here is Government’s problem. They campaigned hard before and during the election on the need for greater transparency and accountability. They were strong, very strong, loud and clear in fact, stressing the importance of tenders to help ensure value for money. They also promised us greater oversight, far greater than that which the PLP had provided on Government expenditure.

So here is our problem, which is also theirs: how do we square that with what is now being proposed for a new airport, a brand spanking new airport which has suddenly become a pressing, urgent priority? It is going to take some convincing.

I suspect the press conference last week with prospective developer CCC and key partner Aecon was supposed to be a step in that direction. But this, of course, came after the e-mails and the picture they painted, making it look a lot like damage control as well. But here is the thing. It surely did not come as any surprise that the prospective Canadian partners maintained they can deliver the best thing since sliced bread as far as airports go. Neither would it be any surprise that they each know on which side their bread is buttered.

How much more impressive (and ultimately persuasive, maybe) if their executives commit and actually submit to public scrutiny and questioning by our parliamentarians through the one parliamentary committee that is meant to exercise such oversight, yes, PAC, the Public Accounts Committee.

Please, please don’t tell me how the committee will get bogged down in politics and politicking. So the Opposition spokesman for finance is the chairman. There are six other members and four are from the Government backbench, the majority. Show the way, for goodness sake, and help out the Opposition and the country by asking the right questions and pursuing appropriate and illuminating lines of inquiry.

Critical parliamentary oversight is what has been lacking around these parts. For far too long. PAC is but one means.

There are other areas which need strengthening and improvement. Like the annual Budget Debate. Or the Office of the Auditor General and that of the Accountant General.

The Office of Project Management and Procurement should also be encouraged and permitted to do its job.

There was also the promise of an independent Contractor General at the last election to monitor and eliminate cost overruns.

The Deloitte Report was an interesting development. It looked and sounded like a compromise between the Brits and the Bermuda Governments, and an apparent substitute for competitive tendering, but a substitute nonetheless. Already we hear of gaps that will need to be plugged.

Solutions? Here’s one: Open and ongoing scrutiny is what is ultimately needed to give a sceptical public the kind of reassurance that is warranted a project this big.

We desperately need to overhaul the failing system of governance that we do have to ensure that we do not continue to face overruns on any and all Government projects, both the large and the small. Dispensing with competitive tendering hardly seems to qualify.