An Open Letter to Sir Gerald, Re: WIOC & Prime Minister’s Questions

The content originally appeared on: Antigua News Room
Speaker Watts

Dear Sir Gerald,

You took the time on Tuesday to describe why a question from the Opposition Leader during Prime Minister’s Question (PMQs) was out of order. Be assured, citizens listened keenly. The Opposition Leader asked the Prime Minister about a decision of the West Indies Oil Company’s (WIOC) board of directors to sell a property to the Prime Minister’s son and whether or not all members of the board supported the decision.

You took the position that the question was not in order because as it pertained to the activities of the board of a private company. As you saw it, WIOC is not an entity of government over which the Prime Minister has control and direction. You found it is improper to ask him something beyond his remit. Merit can be found in the general principle behind your stance, as questions to the Prime Minister should, in fairness and according to convention, regard matters within his remit. However, you were wrong. It is within his remit, and he should have been permitted to answer.

Company or not, the govt must give account

Unless it has otherwise altered its shareholding unbeknownst to the public, the government of Antigua and Barbuda (GoAB) owns 41 percent of WIOC, having divested itself of 10 percent of its shares from its holding position of 51 percent interest up to 2021. WIOC’s being a company as opposed to being a government department or a statutory corporation does not in any way absolve the government of having a responsibility to report on the affairs of WIOC. Those affairs fall under its partial direction, influence or partial control because it owns a 41 percent stake.

For any company, publicly or privately traded, the price of accepting investment from the government on behalf of the taxpayers ought to be transparency. Governance of a country is public business, and Parliament is the primary forum for that business, and any company or other entity which has accepted the government as a shareholder in its enterprise must accept that its affairs will be scrutinized in Parliament, just as if the another company were a major shareholder in WIOC, it would be expected that WIOC’s affairs would be scrutinized in the boardroom of that other company. Parliament is the people’s boardroom.

If the government takes a significant stake in any private traded or publicly traded company, are the people not entitled to expect a certain measure of public accountability in relation to that entity? What sort of opaque situation would we be engendering if we allowed governments to hide behind the veil of corporate secrecy once they vest government resources into companies? To allow such a thing would be antithetical to all good governance.

If the government has signed any agreement compelling it to withhold from Parliament and or the public, the business of WIOC generally or at the board level, then the Prime Minister ought to have simply said that. Otherwise, the only thing preventing the Prime Minister from answering the question was you.

2. The level of stakeholdership does not matter

How much government stake is enough before we ask the government to be accountable to Parliament to report on an entity it has a stake in? What is the threshold? A controlling stake at 51 percent? A sole shareholder position of 100 percent? A significant stake at 41 percent? At what stage does the public become entitled expect that the government will report on the affairs of companies into which it has invested our taxes?

Do we not accept that the government has a duty report on the business of the National Housing and Urban Renewal Company (NHURC) and the National Asset Management Company (NAMCo)? Why does the same not apply to WIOC? Is it because the government no longer owns a majority stake in WIOC? And yet, the government still maintains the largest stake in WIOC at 41 percent. Is that not enough for it to be reasonable that it should give as much of an account as possible for the affairs of the company?

Whether the government incorporates a company itself, or simply buys up a majority stake in an existing company; whether it uses that company as a vehicle for government policy or not; whether it has a total stake, majority stake, or minority stake, the business of government is to report on all its affairs transparently.

It is unacceptable to for you to say to the people of this nation, that (a) the government has invested your taxes into this entity, (2) your elected officials exercise significant influence on the decisions of this entity, (3) the state reaps large sums of revenue from this entity, (4) the Cabinet approves of some number of directors to sit on the board of this entity, but still, somehow, the government does not have to answer questions in Parliament about this entity.

To use a colloquialism, how is that math mathsing???

3: WIOC is a public private partnership (PPP)

The Browne administration has long made it clear that it uses what it describes as public private partnerships (PPPs) as a means to promote economic activity and achieve its policy goals. It has repeatedly named WIOC as an example of such a PPP. Did I miss the memo where the government said that PPPs are clandestine entities whose business the government will not report on?

As an attorney, activist, politician, and public servant of many years, does that seem acceptable to you? If joint ventures through joint stakeholdership are an acknowledged and promoted modus by which the government affects its policy, how can you claim it is not responsible to account for or at least report on the decisions of such PPPs?

4: Gaston Browne is the responsible minister

Prime Minister Gaston Browne has named himself “Minister of Public Private Partnerships”. It is actually in his portfolio title. Please check. Use your glasses if necessary. When you visit the government website at, you will see that alongside NAMCo and the State Insurance Company, WIOC is still listed under Prime Minister Gaston Browne’s portfolio as his responsibility. I would imagine that this applies insofar as the government owns a 41 percent stake in the enterprise as a PPP.

The Prime Minister named himself Minister of “Corporate Governance” from day 1 of his administration some 10 years ago. This is to say that he is the minister responsible for managing the government’s interest in corporate entities across the economy. How after 10 years of being the minister for “corporate governance” and “public private partnerships” does it become impermissible to ask the Prime Minister to report on the affairs of a corporate entity (WIOC) which this Prime Minister decided to buy out, and in which this Prime Minister still oversees the government’s 41 percent stake?

5: The govt likely nominates directors

As a 41 percent stakeholder in WIOC, is the government not represented on the board of the company? If the government appoints any number of directors to sit on WIOC’s board and participate in its decisions, and these directors not likely to report to the Prime Minister as “Minister of Public Private Partnerships”? How then can you determine that it is improper to ask the Prime Minister about the decision making of the board? Am I missing something here?

6: Hands-off does not mean total ignorance

The Prime Minister declared in Parliament this week that the government has a “hands off” approach to the major private entities operating as PPPs and that they make their own decisions. Whether or not that is the case, does not mean that he should be ignorant of the affairs of the company. A hands-off approach is wholly acceptable, but being ignorant of what is going on at an entity in which the government has 41 percent stake is unfathomable. That is his job. He is the Minister of PPPs. Who else in government is supposed to report on the decisions and actions of PPPs if not him?


Sir Gerald, you have again demonstrated your bias with regard to the affairs of the House. You have on more than one occasion sought to protect the government from probing questions during question time, and have shut down the opposition, telling them that their questions are not proper. You should be ashamed.

You did the same thing when Trevor Walker was questioning Gaston Browne years ago about the leaked memo detailing allegations of misbehaviour by Asot Michael when he was Gaston’s minister. You stopped the Prime Minister from answering one of the questions and told Trevor that he can deal with it at election time. I watched in total amazement.

You are worse than shameful. You act as though Gaston Browne is your client and you have to protect his reputation or protect him from incriminating himself. Every day you sit in the chair, you do a disservice to the people of this nation. You parrot the Prime Minister without even knowing it.

There was a time when you could hope to be remembered among the highest cadre of public servants in this country. But you have so utterly demolished your reputation during your tenure in the chair, that now, unfortunately, people will only remember you alongside the ilk of Gaston Browne and his ministers. I hope you can live with that. It’s the truth.


Ernest J. Farfingbottom





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