FREQUENT flyers on Caribbean Airlines (CAL) had cause to pause this week when a parliamentary committee announced a series of damning findings about the state-owned airline. While Finance Minister Colm Imbert today seeks answers on these matters, it’s not clear what consequences, if any, CAL officials will face. Unless there is a change of the rules governing state entities like CAL, they will continue to fly away from true accountability.
It is tempting to dismiss the findings of the Joint Select Committee on State Enterprises as simply an exercise in politics, as some will undoubtedly do.
However, the committee is chaired by an independent senator. And its mandate relates to the role the Constitution has set out for Parliament: to be a watchdog over the public sector.
In the case of CAL, a litany of dodgy practices has been unearthed by the parliamentary oversight system, suggesting the airline has veered off course, particularly since the appointment of a new CEO last October.
The committee has heard of sky-high salaries, poorly-constituted interview panels, high debts and other failings. After repeated appearances before the committee, CAL officials this week belatedly attempted to defend its security practices.
But the horse had already bolted from the stable. The conflicting reports on whether staff are being properly vetted has already damaged confidence in the national airline.
Opposition Senator Wade Mark has suggested the answer to the problem of rogue enterprises might be to turn the State Enterprise Performance Monitoring Manual into a legal instrument with appropriate sanctions.
But there is enough law regulating how public enterprises should function, such as the Integrity in Public Life Act and the Public Procurement and Disposal of Property Act.
The problem is enforcement.
In January a new Public Procurement Board was appointed, at long last. Will it be able to take decisive action in relation to matters such as the ones highlighted by the committee? Will the Cabinet be forced to intervene?
If no action is taken, these parliamentary committees will end up issuing useless reports like Faust’s Gretchen, perpetually spinning at the wheel.
The sad truth is, the Parliament’s total budget of $130 million a year can never fund enough forensic expertise to properly cover the billion-dollar state enterprises that appear before it. What little is detected by these committees is likely the tip of a scandalous iceberg.
And while the committee system has been very active since the Tenth Parliament opened, have any heads ever rolled? Who is really responsible for ensuring someone is held accountable and any untoward practices are discontinued and not repeated?
Hidden among all the matters raised by the committee was one positive development. CAL has had its best financial performance since 2009, despite a $10 million increase in fuel costs.
But what use is that news if this plane is crash-landing?