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Raffique Shah


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Manning 'bombed' by Bombardier

September 24, 2006
By Raffique Shah

Politicians, especially those who are in power, must know they are under intense public scrutiny, whatever they say or do. Once they have offered themselves for office and are elected by the people, they become public property. It's a reality that many may be uncomfortable with. But if you commit yourself to politics, expect the masses to offer you no quarter. Opposition politicians can get away with murder or slightly lesser crimes when they reduce themselves to comic status, when they provide entertainment, not serious challenge for office.

I don't know how Prime Minister Patrick Manning expected to escape with the Bombardier plane junket unnoticed. And I don't know why his colleagues in Cabinet thought they could cover for him under the guise that the ride was akin to what motor vehicle companies offer potential customers. Unless he was seriously considering purchasing the plane, Manning should have declined the ride to Antigua. It's not as if he had never been in an executive jet, or never flown to Antigua. Assuming he did not want to offend Bombardier - and I can't see why not - he should have delegated some junior minister to "try out" the plane.

I hasten to add that while the vast majority of people believe that the Prime Minister of this country does not deserve a private jet, I beg to differ. I view the PM as CEO of the wealthiest country in the Caribbean, one with a multi-billion GDP, and a country that should be exerting its influence in the Caribbean and Central and South America. If senior executives of firms like Neal and Massy and Guardian Life can own and fly in private jets, why not the PM of the country?

My only caveat is that it be a basic executive jet that can seat around 12 persons, with no frills like office space, sleeping quarters, bar, etc. What you want is an aircraft that can take the PM and any delegation, or other VIPs in government or the public service to and from meetings at their convenience. I am no expert in the field, but Lear jets seem to be leaders in this market. The cost should not be more than around US$15 million.

I agree, though, with people who argue that there is such disparity in the distribution of wealth in the country, so much poverty in this land of plenty, that maybe it's inappropriate for the PM to consider purchasing a plane at this time. This will haunt Manning for as long as he fails to address the many social ills that beset his people, and that at a time when we have the means to eradicate poverty. But I wish to remind many who slam the idea of a jet for the PM that in the 1970s, when George Weekes, then president general of the OWTU, bought a luxury car, he was chastised for it. I disagreed then with those who felt George should pedal a bike around the country to show that he was part of the suffering masses. Hell, the man had put many millions of dollars in the pockets of his members, he built the union from a one-door operation to a virtual empire, yet he should not enjoy some limited luxuries? Bull, I said then, and bull I say now to those who believe our PM, whoever he may be, should ride a pirogue to conferences.

But. And this is a big but. When Works Minister Colm Imbert announced that the PM had gone on a "test ride", he pretended not to have read the article that exposed the trip, and worse, not to have known the name of the Canadian company that offered the plane. It would later emerge that this company was among those bidding for the estimated $20 billion rail project.

That project falls under Imbert's ministry, and he had met twice before with potential bidders. Can he really convince anyone that he did not know who Bombardier was? And if he knew but was pretending not to know, one needs to ask why.

This is how politicians plant both their feet in their mouths - by trying to hoodwink a relatively informed people. It gets worse. Imbert, knowing that Bombardier was a bidder, should have advised his boss not to accept the free ride. Because now, if it turns out that that company has the best bid on the rail project, there is no way it can be considered, having compromised its bona fides.

So playing smart with foolishness has landed Manning and some of his ministers in hot water. The adage, always check a gift horse in the mouth, holds good today as it did eons ago. A gift plane-ride turns out to have implications far beyond the two hours of luxury it offered. This was the classic case of a few moments of pleasure leading to who knows how many years of being under a cloud of suspicion. Oh, what tangled webs we weave.