A government prone to unforced errors
This FNM government regularly commits unforced errors. Even when making right, if difficult decisions, it manages to get a “fly in the ointment”.
The relocation of the General Post Office is but one example.
The need to relocate the General Post Office became critical several years ago. The PLP government stumbled between possible alternative sites but took no final decision. The government was voted out of office, leaving post office staff in a dilapidated building confronted daily by very real health and safety hazards.
In government, the FNM too struggled to find a site for the post office. It first announced its relocation to a Gladstone Road location before concluding that the Town Centre Mall, a site previously considered by the PLP government, was the better site.
There was a BIG complication, however.
The owners of the mall are Brent Symonette and his family; Symonette is an FNM member of Parliament and was a member of Cabinet.
Renting mall space to the government had been of considerable import to Symonette who, it is alleged, delayed the announcement of his candidature for the 2017 general election on the FNM ticket so as not to jeopardize his mall rental discussions with the PLP government.
Once elected and appointed to Cabinet, Symonette declared that he had given up on the prospect of renting mall space to the government.
Then came the phone call from the prime minister; the unforced error.
Symonette forthrightly told a talk show host that he was out of the country when the prime minister called to advise him that the government would proceed to rent space at the mall to facilitate the relocation of the General Post Office.
And he provided some details on what he and the prime minister discussed, including the total area to be leased, the cost per square foot, the timeline when the space would be available for occupation and the conflict that would arise if the government rented space in the mall.
The tenor of the conversation as reported by Symonette appears to be an offer by him and the acceptance of same by the prime minister.
When confronted by the media about the reported conversation, the prime minister’s office issued a statement appearing to chastise Symonette for breaching the confidentiality of the telephone conversation. For the record, only Cabinet discussions are secret, not conversations outside of that arena. And, once taken, decisions of Cabinet are not secret; they are routinely announced and acted upon. In any event, what can be confidential or secret about the prime minister agreeing to override good governance rules for the benefit of a member of his Cabinet?
Our system provides a process that permits a government to contract with a member of Parliament.
Our system does not contemplate the government contracting with a member of Cabinet.
Before agreeing to lease space in the mall, the prime minister should have requested Symonette’s resignation from Cabinet. Alternatively, Symonette should have offered his resignation especially given that in his interview he indicated that he was immediately conscious of the conflict that would arise from leasing mall space to the government.
Shockingly and implausibly, the government maintains that it followed all necessary steps to address conflict concerns. Hence, it does not accept the criticism being launched by members of the official opposition and the media.
The opposition PLP and its leader, Philip Davis, are poorly placed to criticize the action by the government. The long list of alleged conflicted deals concluded by the government in which Davis served as deputy prime minister makes him a poor complainant.
Symonette has since resigned from Cabinet.
The FNM promised in the 2017 election campaign, as it has done since 1992, that if elected it would be transparent and accountable in government.
Among the standards and principles extolled by the FNM in its election manifestos since 1992 are the following:
• Holders of public office should take decisions solely on the basis of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, members of their family or their friends.
And with specific regard to Cabinet ministers:
• Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests.
The FNM government should fulfill these commitments.