Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Editorial | Embracing Julian Robinson’s gift

Published:Tuesday | June 7, 2016 | 6:00 AM

What Julian Robinson has done is, of itself, commendable. But more important, by making his income and asset filings public, he is giving new purchase to people who campaign for decency, integrity and transparency from politicians who vie for the right to represent and, ultimately, exercise power over the lives of others. This is a discussion demanding urgency and action, including agreement on the payment of a living wage to those whose overtures we accept.

In Jamaica, parliamentarians are required, by law, to lodge income and assets and liability statements with a special Integrity Commission for legislators. But those filings are not public. Before Mr Robinson provided this newspaper with copies of his declarations, only twice in nearly 40 years has a politician made public his assets and liabilities - both times being by P.J. Patterson, the former prime minister and leader of the People's National Party. On those cases, they were summary accounts, rather than, like Mr Robinson, copies of the actual documents sent to the Integrity Commission.

 

HELP FROM FAMILY

 

Julian Robinson has taken this step, he said, because of whispers about a J$70-million home being jointly purchased by himself and his wife of three years, Mariame McIntosh Robinson, whose background is in equity/investment fund management abroad, but now runs a commercial bank. Mrs McIntosh Robinson makes separate filings to the commission. On the face of it, the Robinsons, together, or separately, could comfortably afford the property. But Julian Robinson has reported that they are receiving help from their families.

The background noise to this issue, of course, is the controversy over the financing and other matters relating to the mansion in the Kingston suburb of Beverly Hills being built by Prime Minister Andrew Holness and held in a St Lucian offshore company. Mr Holness has rejected the allegation that using an offshore vehicle, in which his two juvenile sons are the other shareholders, to hold his properties was not to avoid taxes, but to facilitate "estate planning".

 

NOTHING ILLEGAL

 

There is absolutely nothing illegal in what Mr Holness did, but perhaps for the optics. There are, however, likely to be moral questions for the PM, or anyone seeking high political office, of whether a country's leader should use offshore vehicles of this kind from which to manage their personal resources, when the domestic arrangements they bypass are the result of government policy, and the alternatives are not as easily available to the average citizen.

Moreover, Mr Holness' arguments notwithstanding, "estate planning", utilising offshore international business companies, like those registered in St Lucia, is precisely about tax efficiency - ensuring the beneficial owners enjoy the asset or the proceeds therefrom without the normal tax burdens thereof. For instance, inherent in bequeathing a home or selling property are the transfer taxes, stamp duties relative to real-estate transactions, which are avoided if the real estate remains part of the assets of a firm, which itself may be free from income and other taxes because of its offshore status.

As an MP with a salary of J$5 million, there would be legitimate questions about Mr Robinson's ability to afford a J$70-million home. Those questions are exacerbated in a society with low levels of trust, which Julian Robinson clearly appreciates. It is in that context that he believes it may be right for MPs be obligated to publicly disclose their assets.