Government insensitivity and the people's business
The recent purchase of certain high-end vehicles for government ministers has brought into sharp relief this government's commitment to good governance and its sensitivity to the needs and expectations of its citizens. Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller has reacted with bombast at what she sees as unjust criticism from the public over the government's action. She has stated that ministers of government should not be expected to live a lifestyle below what they were accustomed to in their private endeavours. She has generally defended the action as appropriate, notwithstanding the economic difficulties the country faces.
We need to place in perspective that whenever people offer themselves for public office they should be provided with the tools necessary to do the job, and do it well. One cannot expect that ministers drive or be driven around in vehicles that are not roadworthy. I remember protesting against former Prime Minister Bruce Golding holding on to an older vehicle and not opting expeditiously to get a newer one which could get him around to do his job effectively. My contention then and still is that robust mobility was a necessary component of doing an effective job as leader of the country. I have no less a sentiment for Prime Minister Simpson Miller or her ministers, for that matter.
There are a number of questions that need answers from the prime minister and her Cabinet in this purchase. They ought to be concerned about the signals that are being sent to the country by this action. How sensitive are they to the economic plight that the country is in and how do they balance and justify this purchase against the many intractable problems that are crying out for government expenditure? In the midst of an IMF negotiation where we are literally begging that organisation for mercy, what is to be made of a poor government just yards away from a fiscal cliff buying sixteen high-end vehicles? Where is the sense of fiscal prudence that should motivate an organisation to lend money in that context?
It is not that it is outside the remit of government to buy those vehicles. It is a matter of timing with respect to the purchase and the sensitivity of the prime minister in her response when her subjects dare to raise questions about it. Her reaction would suggest that the citizens should get with the programme because the government had not done anything that had not been done before. This is certainly a lame excuse for spending $60 million on government vehicles when health care is in a state of ruin, or where there is not sufficient capital in the Students' Loan Bureau to support our children's ability to pursue an education. It cannot be expected that politicians should continue to enjoy from the public purse the lifestyle they were accustomed to before they attained political office. Jamaican politicians should have no illusion as to what they are getting into when they fight (and in some instances, literally) hard for their political jobs. Yet, there are those who suffer the delusion that once they arrive, the country has the resources to support what might be considered a profligate lifestyle.
Well, we cannot, and there is no indication that we will ever be able to for a long time to come. If it is not a desire to serve that motivates our leaders, they perhaps should refrain from running for office. We do not have the latitude to spend as we wish, even though we would like to have our ministers move about in comfort when doing the people's business. Our actions must be measured and proportionate in tandem with our ability to spend. This is where the government's action has irked a lot of people because they know we are broke and the resources are not available to spend like that. If the government had bought reliable second-hand vehicles, people would at least sense that our leaders were being sensitive to the social and economic needs of the country.
Good governance is about inspiring people to a higher nobility, and this is done largely by example. It is defined by taking a high moral path which shows that you are sensitive to the needs of people and that you will do everything in your power to ameliorate their suffering - not add to it. Sixty million dollars might be peanuts against the background of our proclivity to spend and waste resources in Jamaica, but it is money we can ill afford. It is part of loan funds that taxpayers will have to repay. Bear in mind that we are wallowing in a $1.7 trillion debt. What should the poor people make of governmental profligacy when many of them almost nightly cry their bellies out on the television screens for the most menial of necessities in their communities? No one begrudges the power our leaders have or the privileges that go with it, but our respect for them should be proportional to how well they do their jobs. Vision 2030 beckons. We have only 18 years left, but can we truly say we are on the right path to achieve it?