Too much secrecy from government

Monday June 11, 2018 Published in Letters to the Editor
Rarotonga resident John Scott still wants answers from fi nance minister Mark Brown, pictured here in parliament. 18061016 Rarotonga resident John Scott still wants answers from fi nance minister Mark Brown, pictured here in parliament. 18061016

Dear Editor,

Increasingly with this Cook Islands Party government we are reading of debt and more debt.

And when people quite legitimately ask questions seeking some transparency, they are either stonewalled, completely ignored, or dealt a whole bunch of fallacious irrelevancies like glowing references to our debt sustainable assessment and fiscal responsibility ratios.

That is all very fine, but they do not answer the questions the public are asking.

Two particular projects the government is currently being secretive about are the Te Mato Vai project and the Manatua cable – no small concerns, with anything from $130 to $150 million involved.

And that is what greeted my letter to the Minister of Finance on May 22 – headed ‘Answers sought on Te Mato Vai issues’ – a whole bunch of fallacious irrelevancies.

His reply in the May 25 edition of CINews – headed ‘Scott out to score political points: Brown’ – not unusually answered nothing, but putting the lie to much of what he did say was James Thomson’s revealing letter on May 31, which corrected the many dismissive remarks of the Minister, and then James Beer’s excellent expose the following day of the Select Committee charade which whitewashed every contestable feature in the petition, describing the corruption of the entire Select Committee process which effectively betrayed the petitioners.

Paradoxically, one can read in the MFEM Cook Islands procurement guidelines this error-laden statement: “The public need (sic) to understand where there (sic) money goes.”

That is refreshing to know, but apparently that information has not filtered down from MFEM to its minister Mark Brown, when it should be mandatory reading for him.

In fact, it should be framed in his office so he gets to read this reminder every day that in a democracy the people are entitled to know what deals have been struck, what they are, where money is being committed and how much.

Despite the minister’s claim that all the TMV information has been put before parliament in compliance with the MFEM Act, no one can produce it – least of all the minister, who you would think would be quick to do so himself if he wanted to shut this matter down.

Don’t tell the readers they have to scamper down to parliament and comb through a plethora of material on the off chance it might be discoverable in diverse statements or oblique references. S.53 of the Act requires any loan to be authorised by statute and s.54 requires that the details be reported to parliament.

The question remains – were they so reported? If so, can that report be produced? What could be simpler? Except of course if no such details were reported – which would appear to be the case if the minister’s denial of them to the select committee is anything to go by.

There is another aspect to this. The law requires statutory authority for the raising of loans. Consistent with that, a logical attendant requirement would be that there be statutory authority for the letting of contracts for the expenditure of the money thus borrowed.

The minister believes, and says, that this requirement is satisfied by an appropriation. I say that is not enough.

The appropriation is authority to spend the money required to fund a contract which has been separately authorised. If you are asking parliament for an appropriation, and quite aside from the law, is it not consistent with responsible government that firstly parliament is not only made aware of the details of the borrowings which are funding the appropriation, but also made aware of the terms of the contract under which they are to be expended?

This need is exemplified particularly where the TMV contracts are concerned.

We have been led to understand that the contracts with the Chinese were signed by the ICI Minister in China and that the minister’s own construction company was somehow or other able to secure a sizeable contract to perform part of the work.

Was this a sub-contract to the head contractor CCECC? Was that signed at the same time? We do not know.

What was its value and what were its terms? We do not know.

How did it fit within the overall contract? We do not know that either, nor the terms of the main contract.

Does Mark Brown think that the people, through their representatives in parliament, are not entitled to this information, especially when the petitioners have identified their concerns about the minister’s obvious conflict of interests?

Is this one of the reasons why there is so much secrecy? Protecting a ministerial colleague on the one hand, but the government as well for a being a party to such an arrangement?

And take the Manatua cable deal. Agreements we are told have been entered into.

Do these constitute contracts? Are we irrevocably committed? What happens if common sense prevails and Bill Carruthers’ cogent and realistic evaluation is finally acknowledged and we want to pull out? Can we?

There was an appropriation in 2017/18 for $10.87million. Has this been spent? If so, what on?

And has the government already locked us into something that has the potential to become another Toagate?

Secrecy has also shrouded the Air NZ subsidies. They were due for renewal. Were they, and on what terms?

All these contracts and agreements, the details of which government is going to great lengths to keep from a concerned public, got me wondering, where does the Government Loans and Contract Act 1968 fit in with all this?

Section 3 of that Act provides – under ‘Government contracts’ – ‘Where under this Act or any other Act, any minister is authorised to enter into any government contract, he may do so on such terms as shall be approved by cabinet’.

Unless this Act has been repealed or amended, and I have found no evidence that it has, s.3 reinforces my earlier points that government is not only denying parliament information it is entitled to, but if this is still the law (and there is every reason why it should be), I repeat my earlier question to the minister in respect of the contracts: Where is the statutory authority? (And which the minister dismissed with his “the Appropriation Bill (sic) is the statutory authority”.)

When one looks at the level of public debt we are accumulating, the secrecy surrounding that, the government’s failure to produce audited accounts for many years, and its unlawful spending beyond constitutional limits, it is not a good look on the eve of a general election.

And we may need reminding of the CIP mess of the 1990s, when we were so hopelessly in debt and mismanaged that government resorted to printing more of the local bank notes than permitted by the currency legislation (yes, we were printing our own money back then) to meet the public service payroll (public servants will remember the brand-new, blue $50 bank notes appearing in their pay packets).

And overnight our bank accounts, hitherto denominated in NZ dollars, were re-denominated as Cook Islands dollars.

The proper financial management of the country’s finances is the ultimate test of a political party and one would think that with all the talking up of their performance that we hear from Mark Brown that there would be no need for their secretive, unlawful, unconstitutional activities.

So why is it happening and what else is going on and being concealed from the public?

            John M Scott

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