An opportunity to regain public trust

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

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Prime Minister Andrew Holness has made a solid opening in his response to the auditor general's report in the abominable happenings at the State-owned Petrojam oil refinery.

As was widely reported between Tuesday afternoon and yesterday, the prime minister has directed that a forensic audit be conducted into the auditor general's finding that 600,000 barrels of oil have been lost from Petrojam since 2013.

“I am going to once again, this time for the last time, direct the board to start the process to identify how we can lose 600,000 barrels of oil over five years, and to explain to the public what this is,” Mr Holness said at a news conference on Tuesday morning at Jamaica House.

He also announced new measures to make the traditional petrol pricing mechanism at the refinery more transparent for, as he correctly pointed out, while the traditional response from Petrojam has been that it is the best pricing mechanism, the public has another view for the simple reason that they hear world prices going down, but the pump prices tend to be going up.

As such, the prime minister said that he has directed the board of Petrojam to ensure that the minutes of the meetings on pricing are sent to the Ministry of Finance's Enterprise Division, or directly to the minister, to enable review, because the adjustment made to the pricing formula is really an exercise in discretion.

On those matters, as we said, the prime minister scored some valuable runs which, we believe, will give the Government some amount of leverage with the public as we await further action on this sordid episode.

We are not naive to believe that what has been a deeply ingrained culture of mismanagement at Petrojam will be corrected overnight, especially given that a lot of what has been taking place there over many years was influenced by politicians.

Indeed, we know of instances in which attempts were made to foist politically connected, unskilled individuals on the company as full-time employees, and we have seen from the auditor general's report an instance in which an unqualified individual was employed by his sibling against the decision of a review panel.

As was pointed out by Mr Holness, the auditor general's report contains recommendations that, with some bits of adjustment, can improve the efficiency of public administration. For there are other public sector entities in which breaches of the Public Bodies Management Act are rife.

In that regard, his declaration that, “coming out of this exercise, Jamaica can only benefit if we establish a system of restitution” is most welcome.

We also take note of the prime minister's instruction to the Petrojam board to take civil action to recover funds from anyone who benefited from or caused taxpayers' money to be used illegally or inappropriately.

At the same time, we await the results of the investigations into Petrojam by the Integrity Commission and the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency, which will likely subject individuals who engaged in criminal behaviour to prosecution. For, as we said in this space, unless people are convinced that they will go to prison, this culture of thievery and corruption will continue.

This Petrojam matter has given the prime minister an opportunity to act decisively and start the process of the political directorate regaining long lost public trust.

We hope he recognises that.

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