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Is there a case for paying our politicians more?

John G
Leiba

Thursday, November 28, 2019

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Let us start with the issue of whether we are satisfied with their performance. If the answer to this question is yes, then there is no issue.

What we want from our politicians is very simple: Their decisions must at all times be made in the best interest of the country without regard to self-interest.

I do not think, by any measure, we can say that we are satisfied with the performance of our politicians over the years. By all the indices, corruption has been a serious problem now and in the past. Hence, the constant attempt by the Integrity Commission to achieve a greater level of transparency and integrity.

We must ask ourselves why, with all the efforts of Dr Trevor Munroe and others, are we not achieving the desired objective? Albert Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” We continue to beat the politicians over the head and not look at it from the point of view of fixing the system in which they operate.

It is interesting to look back from a historical perspective to find out where the problem of underpayment of our politicians started. If you were to ask most Jamaicans of my vintage who has been the gold standard among our politicians, they would tell you it is Norman Manley. Even when he was criticised by the media in an article, it was stated that the criticism was because he had held himself to a higher standard. His tenure as the premier of the country from the 50s to 60s was marked by a high level of integrity. The knock-on effect was a huge commitment by ordinary Jamaicans to give voluntary service to serve our country. Our educators stood out in their contributions, as teachers gave extra lessons free of cost. We had a country that was committed to education and integrity at the highest level. There was the development of many institutions and cooperatives that served this country very well to this day. The country had unprecedented growth. However, Norman Manley made one serious error, which has haunted this country from that time until now: He went into politics rich and came out poor. Bad example.

I will tell you why it is a bad example. Politicians thereafter have asked themselves the question: Why should I go in to make the country richer and come out of politics as a mendicant? So, what we have had is a situation in which some of the politicians have gone in and — those who have had the opportunity to take advantage of the situation — benefited themselves, but not the country.

The example of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore shows how it should be done. When the issue of pay came up in Singapore he demanded to be paid like an executive. He said running a country was far more challenging than running a company. At the time, he did not go for the highest salary, but he was paid a salary of US$750,000. The last time I checked, the prime minster of Singapore was paid US$2 million. Contrast this with our prime minster, who is paid less than US$100,000 a year. The report from the Integrity Commission showed himself and his wife reporting an income of $15 million. At a minimum, it should be closer to $40 million. The approach should be contrasted with Michael Manley, who raised the issue of pay but backed down in the face of opposition from the press and other stakeholders. This is the same Michael Manley who, when he won an election by a landslide in 1972, was approached by the Jamaica Council of Churches to end patronage politics. His response was, “I have a few obligations.” To give him his due, he was honest.

One of the institutions that we as a country can boast about is the Electoral Commission of Jamaica. Some of these individuals are paid well, which is a good thing. When we see what is happening in many countries we are fortunate to have developed this excellent commission. We see the benefit of paying the members of the Electoral Commission, why not the politicians? We do not hear persons questioning the actions of the Electoral Commission. In fact, this has been a model for many countries, and their services are sought after by even our local institutions when they are running their own elections. This is a good example to follow.

An examination of the 10 countries with the highest-paid politicians, which is topped by the prime minister of Singapore, shows that they are all highly successful. The prime minister of Singapore is paid a salary of US$1.6 million. This should be contrasted with our prime minister who is paid a salary of US$50,000. It must be obvious that not only is his salary too low, but that there seems to be no mechanism in place to make the necessary adjustments from time to time.

One of the best lessons I learnt took place in 1980. At the time, I was involved in the divestment of Versair. This was the entity responsible for providing services at the two major airports. Versair, a government entity, was losing at the time $1 million — which was then not just large but a huge sum. Carlton Alexander, of blessed memory, took away the shoe boxes the people were using, replaced them with cash registers, and doubled their salaries. Versair turned out to be a highly profitable entity for GraceKennedy.

I respectfully submit that the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica and entities of that nature should be among the forefront of entities proposing a body to make recommendations for the increase in salary and policing on the integrity side. They must go hand in hand. The resolution of the issue of politicians' pay plus a greater level of accountability could achieve far more economic growth than all the current measures we have in place.

John G Leiba is senior partner at DunnCox. The above represents his personal view and is not representative of the views of DunnCox, its partners, associates and consultants. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or john.leiba@dunncox.com.


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