Wednesday, April 17, 2024

DLP bloodletting over fatted calf


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THERE’S AN OLD Bajan saying that there is always more in the mortar than the pestle.The manner of the July 31 firing of Marilyn Rice-Bowen as chairman of the state-run National Housing Corporation (NHC) by Minister of Housing and Lands Michael Lashley, and his subsequent deafening silence suggests we should look deeper into this issue than any reported differences on policy or protocol.The Democratic Labour Party (DLP) administration is putting such heavy emphasis on its performance in the housing sector that whenever it senses any negative Press it uses the Minister of Housing to deliver a key to a prospective homeowner or to visit a site for future housing.Lashley, it appears – to use the parlance – is the “star boy” who recently failed to get the “star” position of acting Attorney General; so vital has he become to the cast that he is perceived to be better suited for the “guest star” position which he currently holds.So, in the face of the evidence of some progress being made in the housing sector, what could be responsible for the dismissal of the chairman?Division in policyGiven the success story, could it really be a division in policy which the minister has every right to lead? Not hardly.Apparently, the chairman is now being accused of granting an insurance contract to her son.Rice-Bowen says she recused herself from the meeting when that matter was discussed, and that it was a board decision not “Marilyn Rice-Bowen’s”.“I was in no way involved in the decision,” she told the MIDWEEK NATION. “I had recused myself from the room because of the connection. The decision was taken with me away from the room.”Still, one wonders at the fuss being stirred up in the media by anonymous sources and the motive behind what appears to be an attempted smear campaign against the former chairman.Truth be told, it is an open secret that chairmen of other boards have been generous (I put it no higher than that!) in their distribution of the “fatted calf”. Questions raisedJust this past week, for example, questions were raised about the circumstances that led to the insurance for the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) being moved from the Insurance Corporation of Barbados Limited (ICBL) to CLICO, at a time when the chairman of CBC, Leroy Parris, was the chairman of CLICO Holdings.Enquiries were also made for the details on the change of insurance cover for Barbados Conferences Services Ltd (Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre) from ICBL to Trident Insurance in circumstances where the chairman of BCSL, Algernon Leacock, is also the CEO and a substantial shareholder in Trident Insurance.Further, questions were asked about what led the board of Gymnasium Limited to terminate its contract with CGI Insurance to have IMPS Insurance Brokers source new coverage and lead to an increased outlay of 25 per cent for the Gymnasium?More than any other ministry, housing has the potential to deal with several contracts of varying size and structure. There are low to high income houses, wood to wall houses, and various methods by which to finance such projects. The potential for differences between the minister and the board is enormous.The former chairman has identified the failure to divide the “fatted calf” as promised by the ruling party as her real reason for questioning the direction in which the NHC is going.Strangely, as noted above, the minister has not responded to Rice-Bowen’s concerns but instead an insurance contract to her son’s brokerage firm has become a bone of contention.As this was being written, rumours were circulating in some DLP circles, that Lashley, after his initial “no comment” had been persuaded by wiser heads to address the controversy and would likely do so via a Ministerial Statement in the House of Assembly when it convenes on Tuesday.A surpriseNevertheless, it was something of a surprise that a minister junior to Lashley was sent on a popular radio call-in programme last Wednesday to explain matters relating to the issuing of contracts by the DLP administration, while the tentative Acting Prime Minister continues to insulate himself from any misery. Since the housing sector is seen as one of very few areas of success for the DLP administration, the most likely area of contention between the minister and the chairman of the board would have to have been in the area of policy execution, not policy itself. This would start with the allocation of contracts in which the choice of contractor is as political as it is professional. The politics comes in the notion that contracts have to be spread around in the pursuit of fairness.In this case, fairness means that big contracts should be awarded to big contractors and small contracts to small contractors. The emphasis, therefore, lies in the politics of awarding the contracts and not in the delivery of the most cost-effective quality housing to the public. This is obviously an area for contention in the execution of policy with respect to the awarding of contracts.A bigger question therefore arises, should the minister have the final say in who gets a contract awarded by the board?If the answer is yes, then there is no need for the board. If the answer is no, then there is no need for the Cabinet. In essence, the chairman of the board has to be a “yes-man”, in this case, a “yes-woman”.It ought to be clear that the appointment of chairmen to boards is part of the process of apportioning the “fatted calf”. Therefore, the former chairman’s act of breaking her silence is a surprising but welcome departure from the closeted behaviour of offended appointees of the Government. This certainly goes to the heart of the convictions and professionalism of Rice-Bowen, or some may argue, unhealed wounds suffered from her forced removal as a candidate for the constituency of St Michael West Central. The former chairman is obviously not prepared to be part of the institution from which the power to divide the “fatted calf” is derived.In this instance, there was no private attempt to settle public differences as Rice-Bowen ignored self-interest in preference for self-respect. PreferenceAt this stage, the Democratic Labour Party cannot afford a public squabble in which its one performing area of activity is contaminated by odours of preference, privilege or pure politics. The party must be able to ride the perception that the housing needs of Barbadians are being satisfied, and this perception is being projected by a minister who seems to enjoy the pluses and possible perils of public relations.In the absence of major private sector construction projects, the big contractors would be anxious to pursue projects that otherwise would not be on their radar. The timing is opportune for Government to get the cooperation of these contractors, but this will be to the chagrin of the smaller contractors who have been promised a part of the “fatted calf”. In the circumstances, it is not difficult to understand why the minister and the chairman of the board may be at cross purposes in the execution of housing policy.The politics of housing may be at variance with the policies of housing.


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