Apologise and fix the problem, Prime Minister!

The following is an open letter to Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness

Dear Prime Minister:

In recent times, the issue of the increase in salary for politicians to substantial amounts has sparked significant public outcry.

In my view, this situation raises serious questions, particularly when juxtaposed with the fact that all other public sector interests must negotiate their pay with the Ministry of Finance.

The unilateral decision by politicians to increase their pay without any form of negotiation or consultation is a stark deviation from the principles of transparency and accountability that are fundamental to any democratic society, unless I am in the dark, like the rest of the nation, about the process.

The public sector, which includes teachers, nurses, police officers, and other civil servants, plays a crucial role in the functioning of our society. These individuals are required to negotiate their salaries with the Ministry of Finance, a process that often involves lengthy discussions, compromises, and sometimes even industrial action. While sometimes contentious, this process ensures a balance between the Government's financial constraints and fair compensation of public sector workers.

Prime Minister Holness, you said that members of your Cabinet did not push for an increase and the decision was not taken lightly, with Cabinet members deliberating and agonising over whether they should even accept a pay hike. You added that they were fully aware that there would be pushback and potential political fallout from this decision. You missed the point, Prime Minister, the issue here is not a pay increase for your Cabinet, it is the lack of transparency, the vulgar insensitivity — as one protester put it — and the disparity.

The question for me is: Who led the internal negotiation, if any, and what mechanism was used to determine the increase? The lack of transparency is part of what is fuelling the anger. It further exacerbates the ethical concerns surrounding this issue. The public needs to understand how such significant decisions directly impact public finances? Could you ask Minister of Finance Dr Nigel Clarke to convene a press conference so this and other questions can be ventilated?

Prime Minister, when politicians unilaterally decide to increase their salaries without undergoing a similar process like the ordinary civil servants, it creates a glaring disparity. This action undermines the principle of fairness and raises questions about the ethical standards of those in power. It is wrong for you and your team to exempt yourselves from the rules and processes that apply to everyone else. Such actions have led to perceptions of elitism and a disregard for social justice and equality principles.

Your colleagues' massive increase in salary has led to public discontent and a loss of trust in the political directorate, which can undermine the democratic process and social cohesion you and your predecessors have fought so hard to build. Moreover, this situation has crushed the already low morale of public sector workers, who feel unfairly treated, undervalued, and demotivated. I don't even want to mention the fact that some teachers have had to wait weeks to receive their salaries on multiple occasions.

Another time I will tackle the issue of reforming the Ministry of Education to become more nimble and agile, but back to the subject at hand.

The Fix

To rectify this situation, it is imperative to establish an independent body to determine a fair compensation package for politicians. This body should operate transparently and consider factors such as the state of the economy, the demands of the politicians' roles, and comparable salaries in other sectors and countries. The benefits of this approach are manifold. Firstly, it would help to ensure that politicians are compensated fairly and appropriately and reduce the risk of self-serving decisions and potential corruption. Secondly, it would increase transparency in determining politicians' pay, which can help restore and maintain public trust in the political system.

Moreover, by aligning politicians' pay with the country's economic realities and citizens' average income, this approach can promote more significant social equity and cohesion. It can also incentivise politicians to focus on improving the economy and the living standards of their constituents as their pay would be linked to these factors.

Having an independent body to determine politicians' pay can also contribute to the professionalisation of politics. It can help to attract and retain talented individuals in the political field — you have eloquently made this point in the public arena — who might otherwise be deterred by the prospect of inadequate compensation or public backlash against perceived excessive pay.

Establishing an independent body to recommend fair pay for politicians is crucial to ensuring our political system's integrity, transparency, and fairness. It is a measure that can help to safeguard democracy, promote social equity, and foster public trust in our elected officials. But while you contemplate that idea, you must attend to the legal framework that will ensure the accountability of those driving the political bus. I mean creating a legal and policy framework to keep politicians accountable and ethical. This involves a multi-faceted approach. Here are some potential components of such a framework:

1) Transparency laws: These laws require politicians to disclose their financial interests, campaign contributions, and other potential conflicts of interest. This can help prevent corruption and ensure politicians act in the public interest.

2) Ethics committees: These committees can be established at various levels of government to oversee the conduct of politicians. They can investigate allegations of misconduct and recommend sanctions or other actions.

3) Whistle-blower protections: Laws that protect whistle-blowers can encourage individuals to come forward with information about unethical or illegal behaviour by politicians.

4) Campaign finance laws: These laws can limit the amount of money that can be contributed to political campaigns, reducing the potential for undue influence by large donors.

5) Lobbying regulations: These regulations can control how businesses and other organisations can attempt to influence politicians.

6 ) Term limits: Limiting the number of terms a politician can serve can prevent the concentration of power, promote fresh perspectives in government, and attract new blood to the system.

7) Voting system reform: Implementing systems that promote fair representation can help ensure politicians are accountable to all their constituents, not just a select few.

8) Education and training: Providing politicians with moral behaviour education and training can help prevent misconduct.

Finally, Prime Minister, I urge you and your team to guard against arrogance in your public utterances to and about the people — a weakness that needs fixing. Listen to the people and apologise to the nation for the insensitivity. Please, for heaven's sake, don't double down in defensive posturing.

Henry Lewis Jr is a PhD candidate, a social scientist, and an executive life coach. He lectures at University of Technology, Jamaica, in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or hjlewis@utech.edu.jm.

Henry Lewis

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