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Is it really fair to all concerned?

The Point Is...

BY TREVOR MUNROE

Sunday, August 24, 2014    

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(This is a lightly edited version of the keynote presentation to the joint meeting of the Rotary Club of Portmore and Trafalgar, New Heights by Professor Trevor Munroe, executive director, National Integrity Action (NIA), and Honourary Visiting Professor, Sir Arthur Lewis Institute, UWI.)

THE Rotary 4-Way Test reads "Of things we think, say or do": Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?"

I think each of us should challenge ourselves with taking this test, and I wish to single out one aspect and ask all Jamaicans "are our systems fair to all concerned" and, if not, what can we do about it?

Is our correctional system "fair to all concerned?" Mario Deane's fate, (and I extend sympathy to his family) and so many others' prior, provides a resounding answer to that question - NO! The police must be held accountable. The Cabinet Sub-Committee must have a definite timeline to report and we must ensure reforms to the administration of lock-ups. But are not others, perhaps including ourselves, to share some responsibility? We and our representatives sat by while the 2013/2014 budget allocated a little over J$110 million to maintain 70 lock-ups for an entire year, while J$57 million this year and reportedly close to J$100 million last year was spent for a one-day grand gala. Is that prioritisation of spending "fair to all concerned"?

Then there is the taxation system. From my monthly salary, like most other Jamaicans on PAYE, over 31 cents from every dollar is deducted before we even see it. Yet, nothing is being paid in taxes by 1-in-4 companies with revenues of over one billion Jamaican dollars. In other countries many large tax evaders are investigated, tried and sent to prison. In 2012, the UK's DPP tells us, the top 32 offenders in Britain were serving a total of 150 years in prison. In Jamaica we don't even know who they are! They are getting away scot-free, withholding billions while daily we see Jamaicans protesting, as authorities say there is no money to fix the roads or supply water. Is this tax system fair to all concerned when the Students' Loan Bureau's one billion dollar shortfall has left some 2,000 university students living in uncertainty?

In this context, I have to ask Tax Administration Jamaica, as has the co-chairman of the EPOC: Why is it that in the first three months of the fiscal year 2014/2015 corporate tax intakes are running J$2.4 billion or 32% below target, while PAYE taxes are running half a billion more than budgeted?

What about the educational system? Is it "fair to all concerned" when Jamaica is spending on average J$20,000 per student in early childhood institutions and over J$300,000 per student at the tertiary level? With this foundation built on sand, should we wonder why half of those who graduate from secondary schools leave without passing a single subject?

Is the justice system being "fair to all concerned" when almost two years ago, Junior Christie had to serve three months in prison for stealing ackee valued at J$350 from King's House, while public servants found guilty of 'illicit enrichment' are simply fined? Or when a former minister of government found culpable by both the aauditor general and the contractor general for "wholesale breaches of the government's procurement and disbursement rules in respect of tens of millions of dollars" is found to have no case to answer after a six-year trial? Most importantly, no reasons are given as to why the ex-minister has no case to answer. Is this fair to all concerned or does it confirm a finding of the 2007 Justice Reform Task Force, that the Jamaican justice system is "too unequal"?

In our political system, are our governance arrangements fair to all concerned in that a non-performing member of parliament enjoys job security for five years -- the same as a hard-working MP? Is it fair to all concerned that the non-performer cannot be fired? No other employee enjoys such job security and can, after due process, be fired for misconduct, negligence or incompetence at any time. Can this be fair to all concerned or should we not introduce the right of recall now existing in Belize and recently passed by the Trinidad House of Representatives?

Is our banking system "fair to all concerned"? In 2013, a little under J$8 billion was advanced by commercial banks to agriculture while 20 times that -- J$167 billion -- was lent for "consumption" including motor vehicle purchases. Is that allocation optimal for growth?

And lastly, is our economic system fair to all concerned? In the midst of a crisis in which thousands are struggling to make ends meet, especially now with back-to-school and pending bus-fare increases, the income gap between the very top and the rest grows wider. According to the IMF, (Regional Economic Outlook: Western Hemisphere. May 2013) Jamaica has the second-highest level of income inequality in the hemisphere. Consistent with this, last March the Gleaner reported that two top executives at a leading local bank were being paid J$4.5 million per week when the average salary in the Financial Services sector was under J$12,000 per week.

Jamaica's systems are clearly failing this fundamental element of the Four-Way Rotary Test.

But failing is neither our destiny nor our basic nature. Jamaicans are a people who have passed, indeed excelled, in too many tests, for us to accept failing the fairness test. We are a people of talent and capacity, placing in the top ranks of many global indicators.

* The independence of the judiciary ranks in the top third of 148 countries (Global Competitiveness Report 2013/14)

* In health and wellness we rank above the United States (Social Progress Index 2014)

* In Press Freedom we top the US, Canada and the UK and other mature democracies.

* In terms of political stability, despite serious flaws in our system, we have never had a Head of Government assassinated, as has happened in the US and India. Transfers of power have happened for 70 years in constitutionally mandated, relatively free and fair elections without military rule, one-party rule or civil war. Further improvement is required, but let's not belittle our gains and performance.

Historically, we abolished slavery before the United States; achieved adult suffrage before any other predominantly black country; and passed laws to protect women on maternity leave as well as requiring equal pay for equal work between men and women before most developed countries.

It's in our DNA to excel, not to fail; we achieve excellence when we come together, and take steps to stop injustice and unfairness. Too many of us have this capability -- inside our Rotary clubs, the private sector, civil society, our universities, our communities, our political parties --and too many are distressed at the injustice for it to continue. We need a movement against injustice, a partnership for fairness across the land and those abroad. There are many who say "That's true, but can we do anything to change the situation?" My answer and that of NIA is YES! We can, drawing not from any textbook, but from our own experiences, including the recent Mario Deane experience.

The unified outcry of so many individuals and organisations has made, and is making, a difference. We need to ensure that the outcry is sustained, and that the initial response of the authorities is converted into practical action to prevent a recurrence. Clearly, the authorities listen if our voice is loud enough; they do not if we remain quiet.

Another example, on April 17, 2014 the finance minister announced a levy on the withdrawals from banks; less than two weeks later the tax was withdrawn. What happened? People from all walks of life said no! An online petition garnered more than a thousand signatories; there were over 400 online comments on articles in the Gleaner and Observer and numerous calls were made to talk shows. So it was four years prior, on a different issue but for much the same reason -- the people's demand -- a previous administration had to reverse itself and allow the extradition of Christopher 'Dudus' Coke.

The lesson is clear, is it not? Unite and cry out with a strong and sustained voice. This is one way for the unjust and unfair actions of the authorities to be reversed. It is possible to get Jamaica to pass the fairness test, but not if we become frustrated and spend our time trying to get a visa to migrate or partying our troubles away.

In our capacities as concerned citizens, we are challenged to play a role in leading the charge to stand up, to talk up for what is right, against what is wrong. The media also has a key role to play in projecting not just the wrongs, but the real effort to make it right. We at NIA are ready to work with you to build a movement for integrity to get Jamaica to pass the fairness test. May I invite each and every one of us to "stir response to duty's call"?

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