That the Port Authority has failed, for a sixth time, to complete its procurement process for the inter-island ferry service is not only a deep embarrassment, it is a severe aggravation of an already difficult situation which has left the State little choice but to take over the process.
At last week’s post-Cabinet media briefing, Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister Stuart Young put the matter in stark terms.
“It is no matter of coincidence that six attempts at a tender failed,” Young said. “We are not hamstrung by those who may want to influence a decision by corrupt means or otherwise.” A Cabinet sub-committee, comprising Finance Minister Colm Imbert, Young, Tourism Minister Shamfa Cudjoe and Public Utilities Minister Robert Le Hunte will now oversee the procurement.
It is not ideal to have government ministers micro-managing a matter that is properly the domain of civil servants. However, given the importance of the ferry service, both economically and socially, as well as the manifest failure of the Port Authority to deliver—there is more than adequate cause for this intervention.
What it all reveals is the Public Service’s unreadiness when it comes to handling procurement issues. This does not bode well for the unrolling of the new public procurement regime.
The sub-committee has its work cut out for it. It must ensure a new ferry arrives within the shortest time-frame and it must minimise disruption to the Christmas and Carnival seasons. But though the committee will be focusing on getting appropriate contractual arrangements in place, the State must also address the wider issue. That issue is the need for a permanent transport solution.
The inter-island ferry is as vital as a highway. It transports goods that Tobago merchants need, facilitates tourism and enhances social linkages. Business is already slow this Christmas. As a nation, we cannot afford to add the complication of further infrastructure breakdown. Such an outcome would be disastrous for both Tobago businesses and their Trinidadian partners.
Domestic ferry passengers declined 38 per cent this year. It will take lot of work to restore confidence in the service. Perhaps the first place to start is the Port Authority itself and the matters unearthed there. It’s time for the ferry tales to come to an end