Columns

Champagne taste on a lemonade budget

Thursday, July 13, 2017

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If this $8-million phone bill debacle is not a case of Champagne taste on a lemonade budget, then I don't know what is. I, like many other ordinary Jamaicans, am incensed by the recent revelation that the minister of finance has somehow accrued a phone bill of $8.34 million over a period of one year. For the month of October 2016 alone, he racked up a whopping $4.2 million in charges. At first, I was slow to respond. One can get easily desensitised to Government excess with a $606-million de-bushing programme being tossed around the news cycle. And yet, this particular instance of government excess feels especially egregious; partly because of how we clamoured for blood when Arnaldo Brown cost the state over $1 million in phone charges, but moreso because of everything else that continues to remain unaddressed as a result of the Government's claims about lack of funding.

For example, Jamaica has no State-owned-and-operated shelter for victims of domestic violence. Instead, the only centre in the country is operated by a non-governmental organisation. While there are plans to build three over the next three years, I cannot help but wonder how far $8 million could have gone in erecting at least one of those shelters. How much material, manpower or technical staff could $8 million have bought?

I think about the number of students who struggle in our unjust education system and, having graduated high school, are unable to transition into tertiary education because of a lack of funding. How many scholarships, textbooks or associated costs could $8 million cover? Or rather, how many students would not have to jump through the hoop of a $20,000 commitment fee to attend the University of the West Indies, if that $8 million were available to them? My calculation says 400.

I can't help but think about the fact that pregnant mothers are sometimes asked to share hospital beds or rotate same at Victoria Jubilee Hospital. How many beds could $8 million purchase?

Most irksome are all the social interventions that we bleeding-heart human rights advocates have asked the Government to implement, only to hear that there is no funding. I wonder how many unattached youth would benefit from an $8-million funded social programme that moved them further away from being vulnerable. I imagine if only 20 of them were provided for, that would be 20 youth less likely to fall into criminal activity.

And what of police cars needed for investigations? What of the infrastructure and equipment needed to speed up the justice system and make it more efficient so that Jamaicans could gain some faith in it and support it? How many of those could $8 million help to purchase?

Instead, we are being told that because the Government can't afford the equipment, the infrastructural changes, the social intervention programmes, that we have to take strict and drastic measures in the short term to address crime. The Zones of Special Operations Bill has been passed in both Houses. This Act empowers police to enter houses without warrants and detain people just for being in certain areas. Those 20 unattached youth, instead of benefitting from an $8-million programme will now be at greater risk for police brutality and excess.

And for those who seek to explain away this new excess with the flimsy excuse of “roaming data charges”, I ask what do we have to show for it? Even if Shaw was not hotspotting for friends, family and his entire constituentcy and was in fact doing the Government's legitimate business abroad, what does the Government of Jamaica have to show for this expenditure? Clearly, not enough, or else Shaw would have defended the expenditure rather than seek to assist with clearing it off.

So now I am left to wonder two things. One, how is a Cabinet minister whose salary is $5.9 million annually able to so readily pay $2 million? Two, is it that my income tax is not meant to pay for shelters for victims, scholarships for poor students, hospital beds, social interventions or infrastructure for the justice system, but instead to cover roaming data charges for ministers?

Since our Government has Champagne taste on a lemonade budget, I would like my tax back!

Glenroy Murray

Policy & Advocacy Manager, Equality for All Foundation

Policy Officer, WE-Change

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