WE WELCOME the announcement of a commission of inquiry into aspects of the Solomon Hochoy Highway extension project as an opportunity to ventilate and resolve questions over a mega project which has placed tremendous strain on the Treasury, notwithstanding its usefulness.
At the same time, we warn against politicisation of this inquiry. If the proceedings are turned into a kangaroo court in which the Government and Opposition throw barbs at each other, ignoring the quest for answers taxpayers deserve, the inquiry will be less useful.
Why another inquiry? Opponents of Government’s decision will rightly point to objections once voiced by none other than current Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, who dismissed the Las Alturas inquiry as “baby Uff” — referring to its overlap with the famous inquiry into Udecott and the public construction sector.
The newly announced inquiry would examine yet another instance of public construction, meaning to some extent it covers matters already traversed. Yet the Solomon Hochoy Highway extension to Point Fortin project under the previous administration was one of the costliest public projects in this country’s history, occurring well after the Udecott scandal.
Additionally, the high degree of interest in the inquiry's subject matter, the project's long and tangled history – with endless allegations of corruption and mismanagement – and the inquiry's specific focus all distinguish it. The terms of reference suggest the proceedings will examine land acquisition.
While focus on such a discrete issue will allow the commission to limit its focus and costs, it is important for the door to be open for the examination of any instances of wrongdoing that come before it. Cabinet must remain amenable to the possibility of an expansion of the terms of reference down the road.
Cabinet should also carefully consider whether its chosen head of the commission, retired Justice Sebastian Ventour, is the best fit given his past role in relation to the Integrity Commission's E-mailgate inquiry. Ventour is undoubtedly well-capable of impartially fulfilling his mandate but there is a history of objections being raised.
Undoubtedly, our country’s long list of previous inquiries will leave some sceptical of the newest addition to the family. The Piarco airport project, Udecott, the Las Alturas housing project, the events of 1990, the Clico/HCU debacles, the public health sector — all were subject to examination at great expense. All left an impression that the people who benefit most from the commissions of inquiry are the lawyers, not taxpayers.
Still, at a minimum, these inquiries play an important role in allowing facts to be ventilated. If getting to the truth is the most taxpayers can hope for, then it is well worth going down this familiar road again.