'You get what you pay for'
Performance-linked salaries for MPsSunday, October 24, 2021
Now, this may be a little salty for your liking, but indulge me for a brief moment. If I were to ask if you believe a Jamaican Member of Parliament (MP) was paid adequately, what would you say?
I would wager that your response would be, “Yes, of course!” You may even say: “They get too much!”
If I were to follow up and ask if you believe the work of an MP should be a full-time job, I presume your answer would be the same. If your answer is “no” to both questions, then you are definitely an exception.
With only 38 per cent of eligible voters coming out to vote in 2020 any discussion surrounding salaries of Jamaica's public servants and officials is prickly. Furthermore, average Jamaicans, in 2018, opined that 70 per cent of Jamaica's elected officials was corrupt, 80 per cent of the police force was corrupt, and 50 per cent of government employees were corrupt (Bill Johnson 2018). There is no doubt that we would like our nurses, teachers, security personnel, and employees across the public sector to be our best and brightest serving with integrity. I believe Jamaicans would be prepared to pay top salaries for top graduates recruited by the public sector. However, would this same approach apply to the salaries for MPs?
In 2004, the late Oliver Clarke, former chairman of the RJR/Gleaner media conglomerate, led a parliamentary salaries review committee which concluded that parliamentarians would receive no salary increases until 2006. There are currently 63 Members of the Lower House of the Jamaican Parliament serving approximately 46,031 people per constituency. Currently, this public official earns a basic salary of $347,000 monthly, translating to US$2,313 per month or US$27,760 per annum. To be more specific, an MP in Jamaica earns approximately US$14.45 per hour, considering a 40-hour workweek — less than the New York city minimum wage of US$15 per hour.
Jamaica, up to five years ago, ranked among the countries whose parliamentarians were among the lowest paid in the Caribbean region. There are 30 MPs in Barbados serving a population of 290,000 earning annually US$31,500 as their basic pay, while serving 9,666 persons on average or almost one-fifth the number a Jamaican MP is expected to serve. In Trinidad and Tobago MPs earn $29,828 per annum.
The role of an MP in Jamaica
The multifaceted role of an MP in Jamaica is generally misunderstood. The hours of work are limitless, and the expectations are unrealistic in a society now conditioned to demand benefits in exchange for votes.
Objectively, MPs are required to perform and be skilled in several roles and functions as human resource director, life coach and counsellor, project manager, negotiator, sports coordinator, investment promoter, infrastructure developer, social development coordinator, undertaker, public speaker, legal draftsman, and national planner. To perform in all these roles effectively is a full-time job.
In far too many instances, people enter politics not for their skills in the areas needed to advance the development of the country, but based on their popularity, partisan political activism or their family associations in the community. “Yeah, man, everybody know John, him can win the seat!”
There is no other job position nor application that one could apply for that would depend on these qualities as the basis for being employed. Instead, landing a reputable position would be based on technical competence and leadership skills. Therefore, if MPs seek more remuneration, perhaps we need to develop basic qualifications for the job.
As it stands, the Jamaican Constitution simply outlines the following: “The House of Representatives shall consist of persons who being qualified for election as members in accordance with the provisions of this constitution, have been so elected in the manner provided by or under any law for the time being in force in Jamaica who shall be known as a “Member of Parliament…Subject to the provision of this constitution Parliament may make laws for the peace, order and good government of Jamaica..”
The Singapore model, which has moved the country from Third World to First World, is always instructive. This country has clearly outlined the expectations and metrics for their public officials, specifically, Members of Parliament and ministers of Government. Notably, when Singapore considers potential candidates to take up political office, the first criterion is “for a sense of public service; people who have their heart in the right place, who can empathise with Singaporeans from all walks of life, who want to contribute to the betterment of our Singapore and Singaporeans” (Public Service Division, Singapore).
But Singapore also recognises that having a passion for public service is not, in itself, sufficient to run and manage a country well. Therefore, people who aspire to become representatives of the people must have a sense of public duty and many other qualifications, such as “organisational and leadership capabilities, the capacity to handle multiple responsibilities, and ability to solve problems and take charge in times of crisis, and the capability to be on par with world leaders and further Singapore's interests”. As such, Singapore has benchmarked its salary scale for public officials to the top 1,000 earners in the country who would meet all these criteria; for example, chief executive officers, chief operating officers, chief financial officers, chief information officers, general managers and representatives from the financial services. The Singaporean Government has taken the view that, while many top earners have the management competencies, many do not have the sense of public service; however, that should not prevent the country from attracting the same quality and abilities of the top earners as public representatives and ministers for continued good government.
There are 93 MPs in Singapore who earn an average annual salary of US$144,375 ($21,656,250) if they are not members of Cabinet. A Cabinet minister earns US$825,000 ($123,753,000). In this context, Singapore demands and gets from their MPs and ministers, full-time performance, integrity, and transparency. Those who deviate are subject to jail time.
You get what you pay for
There is an overall connection between a person's qualifications, experience, and performance. Most experienced attorneys practising in Jamaica charge in excess of US$300 per hour, sometimes more. This is 20 times the salary of an MP. If lawyers and doctors can charge more based on their experience and qualifications, how is it that a five-term elected MP is paid on the same scale as a first-term MP?
Most members of the public fail to appreciate one of the most important roles of an MP, that of absorbing the frustrations of our people by providing a listening ear and coaching them to acceptable solutions to their problems. We all deplore the level of violence in the society, but it could be argued that the daily interventions of our MPs may be the thin wedge which has prevented whole scale civil unrest.
In most circumstances it is hard to turn away a constituent who has no food to feed him/herself and family, or the bright and deserving child who cannot afford to go to school, or the young farmer who needs help to buy seeds in his attempt to become self-sufficient. So, while an MP's salary may be considered adequate, in most cases it has to be given away to their constituents to assist with school fees, prescriptions, funeral expenses, and medical surgeries.
If we truly seek to move our country forward, demanding more from our elected officials and top civil servants, we must realise that we cannot attract the best talent on the present salary scale, and we need a new approach. We could start by requiring minimum entry requirements with performance-linked salaries that are commensurate with market conditions and the expectations of the job.
It is time we accept the age-old adage, “you get what you pay for” or else the annual constituency debate will continue to applaud road construction, care package distribution, and Constituency Development Fund (CDF) benefits without true development of our country and increasing the per capita income of our people.
Lisa Hanna is Member of Parliament for St Ann South Eastern, People's National Party spokesperson on foreign affairs and foreign trade, and a former Cabinet member.