Of salaries, corruption and opportunism

The story is told of a late, legendary, deep-rural Member of Parliament (MP) who reputedly walked his constituency with his trousers pockets turned inside out.

The pre-emptive message from the popular, jocular MP to those who would otherwise come seeking a 'smalls' was crystal clear. He was flat broke.

That story captures a decades-old reality for elected politicians in Jamaica. Constituents often expect their political representatives to not only lobby and legislate on their behalf, but to assist out of their pockets.

Grossly underpaid politicians routinely find themselves being asked to help with school fees, school books, funerals, wakes, hospital bills, etc.

Unless that elected politician is independently wealthy, such demands soon become impossible.

Those who tell their constituents the truth — that their role is to represent, lobby, and legislate, rather than deliver handouts — may well find themselves becoming unelectable.

Against that backdrop, allegations of politicians accepting kickbacks, gifts, and bribes have taken root and thrived. The popular narrative is that such funds become the largesse which brings votes.

Truthfully, many Jamaicans believe their leaders are corrupt. That has largely driven the cynicism with which governance is viewed and the voter apathy which led to an abysmal 38 per cent turnout in the 2020 parliamentary election.

Corruption is the elephant in the room, even as we agree with Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke that in order to competitively attract those best qualified and able, much higher salaries are needed for elected officials.

Just as for others in the public service, those elected should be able to support their families and function efficiently on the strength of their monthly pay and commitment to public service.

Various committees since the early 1970s have agreed that remuneration for elected leaders are embarrassingly low. Given the well-established public scepticism, the reluctance to comprehensively deal with the problem is understandable. Yet we can't keep delaying.

So, in our view, the Government's public sector compensation initiative, which includes the just-announced contentious increases for our political leaders, is long overdue.

However, we believe the massive pay surge would have been more palatable had the Government first resolved the numerous anomalies and discrepancies in the application of the new compensation initiative across the public sector. Employees in far too many areas, including education, health, and the constabulary are angry, dissatisfied, even demoralised.

Those issues must be dealt with urgently.

Also, the absence of a well-thought-out public awareness programme in preparation for Dr Clarke's announcement of the new salaries on Tuesday rendered the current backlash inevitable.

Obviously, too, there is an ever-increasing need for much greater transparency and accountability in governance to ensure value for money. Unfortunately, any such popular perception will remain in the hazy distance for a long time yet.

The situation opens the way for political opportunism, a temptation to which we regret to say the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) appears to have yielded.

Word from Opposition spokesman on finance Mr Julian Robinson that his side had no issue with the announced increases, even while he urged the Government to address the existing anomalies, was swiftly overturned by the PNP Secretariat which declared strong objection.

That's not how a political party aspiring to lead should behave, in our view.

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