It's unfortunate the Government’s undertaking to refer the question of the disposal of Petrotrin assets to the Parliament’s Committee on Energy Affairs was precipitated by a lawsuit.
The committee would have met in camera yesterday, although a public sitting would have been preferable given heated debates since the state oil company's refinery was mothballed last year, and the assets placed under a holding company and its subsidiaries.
But the move nonetheless underlines the useful role Parliament committees can play in avoiding allegations of lack of transparency and accountability.
The committee is set up to consider, whenever necessary, energy expenditure, administration, and policy. It has most recently been involved in examining the strategies to promote production. At its last meeting in February 2018, specific focus was placed on oil and gas companies and the Lashley Report prepared by the Petrotrin Review Committee. Ten senior officials of Petrotrin appeared. However, a meeting planned for March 2018 was cancelled.
The length of time since the last sitting of this committee was cited in the recent court case. It was also argued the government’s announcement that a firm tied to the OWTU was the preferred bidder for the assets was premature, as it was a matter which should have at least been considered by the committee. In light of the Government’s undertaking, attorneys Wayne Sturge and Gerald Ramdeen withdrew their application for an injunction to stop the sale but signalled interest in having the issue of whether the matter should have been put first to the committee ventilated. All of it, however, comes in the shadow of the well-established principle that Parliament is supreme. The extent of that principle is awaiting adjudication in pending matters.
All of the legal niceties aside, it is incumbent on the Cabinet to acknowledge the need for transparency and accountability in matters such as this. Crucially, it should be remembered that the sale is not a done deal, several pre-conditions are to be met and there are many factors that will have to be evaluated going forward. The committee could, potentially, be a useful tool to ensure that the entire evaluation is done in a manner that allows citizens to be at the table. An important precedent can be set.
Petrotrin is no stranger to Parliament’s committees. Several have investigated and reported on the dire conditions in the company over the years, at times raising crucial red flags. Our view is that the state and fate of Petrotrin should have been in some way addressed by the committee before this decision was made. Such a sequence of events could have gone a long way in staving off fears over transparency by presenting pertinent findings in relation to the company’s operations, the need to hold parties accountable for its losses, and the need for it to be effectively mothballed pending resolution of its review.
At the same time, all of this assumes a healthy relationship between Parliament’s committees and the executive of the day. Sadly, there is a long history of governments doing little on reports produced by these committees, even in the face of startling revelations.
Still, while there is always room for improvement, these committees provide important insights. They can help create a blueprint for more effective management of remaining state assets.