3 Feb 2009

Too high an expectation?

PERHAPS it was too much to expect our politicians to rise to the level of wisdom and restraint for which this newspaper called yesterday. The debate on the Central Bank (Amendment) Bill and the Insurance Act (Amendment) Bill in the House of Representatives has surfaced the worst fears of this newspaper on the motives and the agenda which the Government of Trinidad and Tobago is pursuing with the bailout of CLICO and Clico Investment Bank.

What the people of this country got in the House yesterday was nothing short of a national disgrace. For this, the Prime Minister must shoulder the responsibility of failing to lead the country through a time of great uncertainty and fear.

At a time when public trust in Government process is most demanded of its leaders, the nation heard the PM signal his intention to embark on what can only be described as a witch hunt. We were chagrined to hear him speak glibly about now being "in a position to get the details of a certain transaction", suggesting an intention to access records and information presumed to reside within CL Financial in respect of alleged transactions of certain persons.

To be fair to him, he also declared that "there are certain issues of national concern, which ought not to be the subject of the political cut and thrust. We believe that this one is.'' We couldn't agree more.

This is not the time for settling political scores. Nor is it the time for panicking an already jittery public, which must surely be worried about the possibility of the CL Financial imbroglio becoming a political football, thereby fuelling further damage to the national economy.

The terms of the bailout of CL Financial allows the Government and the Central Bank unprecedented access to the assets and books of CL Financial, a private company. While there is no question that the depositors and policyholders must be protected, intervention by the Government and the Central Bank should not provide occasion for the Government to gain access to the private affairs of citizens or to use the assets that fall under its control to prosecute agendas against political enemies, real or perceived.

We warned yesterday that the Government should see itself as the "trustee'' of the CL Financial assets which fall under its control. One of our concerns is, of course, for our own parent company, One Caribbean Media, where a minority of the shares are owned by CLICO, but where, some fear, there may be an agenda afoot to use this shareholding to "manners'' the Express and TV6, media organisations which have been founded on the principle of freedom of the press and which pride their independence which, we should add, will be defended with all the resources at our command.

Our concern, however, extends equally to companies like Republic Bank, the country's largest bank with depositors and shareholders drawn from every corner of the country. That Republic Bank could conceivably become a State-owned and controlled bank, giving the Government a dominant stake in the banking industry in this country, is a matter of significant concern. It is not clear what public purpose is served by State ownership of Republic Bank, when it might be argued that even FCB and the Unit Trust Corporation should long ago have been candidates for divestment.

We applaud the suggestion by the MP for Diego Martin West that the shares of these companies be placed in a specially-created holding company and left there until disposed of in a way which maximises the value to taxpayers who are footing the bill for this historic bailout. We also find validity in many of the questions raised by the Opposition, especially regarding the size of the bailout that taxpayers will be expected to bear. We also share the reservations about the general lack of information.

Once again, therefore, we urge restraint.

Express Editorial