The parliamentary salaries furore — more heat than light
Prime Minister Andrew Holness eliminating the increase in his salary has created a weird situation in which his earnings will be less than half of his Cabinet ministers' and less than three-quarters of that of an ordinary Member of Parliament.

I cannot recall any significant increase in parliamentary salaries that did not lead to public disquiet. Logic and reason tend to become casualties of anger and protest.

The Ronald Sasso committee of 1981 that was tasked with reviewing parliamentary salaries proposed the alignment of a Cabinet minister's salary to that of a permanent secretary — the "one dollar per week more" principle. The salary for all other parliamentary positions would then pivot around or be determined by percentages above or below that figure. The Douglas Fletcher committee of 1989 recommended that that formula be retained.

This approach has a persuasive logic. The permanent secretary is accountable to the portfolio minister for the execution of the policies that the minister lays out. It could well be argued that the differential should be more than one dollar per week, but let that sleeping dog lie.

That is the basis on which parliamentary salaries have been adjusted for the past 34 years without any controversy, except for 2003, when logic and reason succumbed. For a long time during the 1990s, while permanent secretaries and other public sector workers received periodic salary increases, no commensurate adjustment was made to the salary of Cabinet ministers and, hence, none to that of the other political office holders. In order for this to be corrected, in 2003 Cabinet ministers had to be given a 103 per cent increase to restore the "one dollar more" relationship between them and the permanent secretaries. It caused a howl of protest from the public with scant regard for the fact that parliamentarians had been left stranded for many years when public sector salaries were being increased.

DAVIS-WHYTE... has taken issue with the fact that the Cabinet minister's salary has been aligned to that of the highest-paid permanent secretary, namely, the financial secretary

In the context of the comprehensive public sector compensation review which saw significant salary increases to public sector workers, that "one dollar per week more" principle is what was used to calculate the increases in parliamentary salaries. If the outcome is to be contested, it has to be done on one of two grounds: either that the permanent secretaries are being paid too much or that the link between Cabinet ministers and permanent secretaries should be severed. I have not heard any voices arguing that the new salary scale for permanent secretaries is too high. The contention, therefore, must be that the Cabinet minister should receive less than the permanent secretary. How much less?

It is useful to examine the level of increases granted to some large select groups:

• Teachers (36 categories)

63 per cent — 224 per cent

• Police Federated Ranks (4 categories)133 per cent — 175 per cent

• Police Officer Ranks (6 categories)55 per cent — 115 per cent

• Registered Nurses (8 categories)159 per cent — 179 per cent

• Medical Doctors (6 categories)170 per cent — 214 per cent

The Advocates Network argues that the pay increase for parliamentarians should not exceed 20 per cent. That figure is also implied in the decision of the leader of the Opposition to accept only 20 per cent of the increase and to donate the other 80 per cent to charities.

What this would mean is that the prime minister's salary would be roughly equivalent to that of an assistant commissioner of police, a Cabinet minster's salary would be about a half of that of the lowest-level permanent secretary and the salary of a member of parliament would be less than that of the principal of the lowest grade secondary school. Is that what the objectors are putting forward?

It has been suggested that parliamentary salaries should be determined by an independent panel. We have had four such "independent panels" over the last 50 years and the formula now being used is precisely what was recommended by one of them and endorsed by another. The Oliver Clarke committee came later in 2003. It recommended that the indexation of the Cabinet minister's salary with that of the permanent secretary be dispensed with. It proposed that parliamentary salaries be adjusted up or down based on specific performance targets such as the differential in inflation between Jamaica and its main trading partners and how well members of parliament serve their constituencies.

At first glance, this approach is appealing. How it would be computed in dollar or percentage terms, however, is mind-twisting. In addition, it is inherently irrational and unfair. Inflation is not caused only by a government's fiscal misbehaviour. It may be driven by external factors like the current war in Ukraine, over which ministers have no control. Oil price shocks may have a far more negative effect on inflation in Jamaica than they do in our main trading partner countries which are themselves oil producers. Are Cabinet ministers and, by extension, all parliamentarians to be blamed and punished for that?

Even if the inflation differential is caused by government mismanagement, are Opposition members of parliament to be punished for Government decisions over which they have no control and which they may have vehemently opposed?

How is the performance of members of parliament in servicing their constituencies to be measured when so much of that function is dependent on Government decisions and the allocation of resources over which they have little or no control?

The decision of the prime minster to remove the post he occupies from the compensation review is clearly designed to placate public resentment. It is his right and within his discretion for him to forego the increase in his salary and either return it to the consolidated fund or donate it to charity as the Opposition leader said he will be doing. But eliminating the increase has created a weird situation in which the prime minister's salary will be less than half of his Cabinet ministers' and less than three-quarters of that of an ordinary member of parliament. That is an oddity that exists nowhere else in the world and cannot rationally be explained or sustained. Well intentioned though it is, it is merely kicking the can down the road — a situation which he, himself, or some future prime minister will eventually have to rectify.

It would have been so much better in assuaging public disquiet if the accountability measures and performance criteria for parliamentarians had been established prior to the salary increases.

During the protracted negotiations on the new public sector compensation arrangements, stakeholders kept demanding more, more, more. The link between the salary of a Cabinet minister and a permanent secretary was then long established and well-known. The recently announced increases could long have been calculated on the back of an envelope.

The president of the Joint Confederation of Trade Unions, Mrs Helene Davis-White, has taken issue with the fact that the Cabinet minster's salary has been aligned to that of the highest paid permanent secretary, namely, the financial secretary. The Opposition spokesman on finance, Julian Robinson, expressed a similar criticism. Both suggested that it should be pegged in the midrange of the permanent secretaries' band. It is an issue that is worth revisiting.

A different approach which I have long advocated is for parliamentary salaries to be adjusted based on the weighted average of adjustments to the salaries of other public sector workers. It would be difficult to assail a position where the politicians are not doing for themselves any more than they have done for the other public sector workers over whose remuneration they exercise control.

I don't have the data to calculate what the weighted average of the current salary adjustments is. The website of the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service lists 328 categories of public sector workers. The level of increases at the entry level of these categories is as follows:

Level of increase Category

• 34 per cent — 50 per cent 7

• 51 per cent — 100 per cent 113

• 101 per cent — 150 per cent 91

• 151 per cent — 200 per cent 101

• 201 per cent — 250 per cent 12

• 250 per cent— 300 per cent 3

• Above 300 per cent 1

However, without the data as to the number of persons employed in each category, it is impossible to calculate the weighted average of the salary increases that have been provided for the public sector. Certainly, it would be much more than the 20 per cent being suggested by the Advocates Network, and others, as the level of increase that should be applied to parliamentarians. This would, of course, be an abandonment of the indexation of the Cabinet ministers' salary to that of permanent secretaries.

That, however, is hardly likely to satisfy the objectors, some of whom insist that it is perfectly appropriate for the prime minister's salary to be equivalent to that of an assistant commissioner of police and the Cabinet minister's salary to be about a half of that of the lowest-ranked permanent secretary.

Logic and reason have again deserted us.

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