Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Ronald Thwaites | Clear and present danger

Published:Monday | April 3, 2017 | 4:10 AM

 

That is how the prime minister described the annual $30-billion public-sector pension 'bang-belly' of the Budget last Tuesday.
And that figure will keep growing as early retirement is promoted, retirees live longer, and as pensioners demand and deserve increments to cope with higher taxes, inflation and devaluation.
Historically and currently, these monies have been paid off the top of the Consolidated Fund, that is, from your taxes without contribution, as in the case of teachers, from the beneficiaries.
Nor have governments in the past made provision for these pensions. We just take it out of the threadbag every year. No one really noticed until now our creditors are insisting that this level of mindless imprudence must stop.
Ask yourself, how did we allow it to get this way? To me, it is another indication of the pervasive irresponsibility of the colonial mentality: If we needed or wanted something badly enough, we must have it and figure out how or who must pay for it later.
This same mindset afflicts the Budget just passed and, particularly, the tax package.  At least we have been forced by those we owe to stop borrowing ourselves into default and bankruptcy, but the radical reconstruction of public finances, rhe zero budgeting based on agreed national, not partisan, priorities cannot take place without a high level of political consensus.
So we undergo the pain of austerity but scarcely see the benefits of sacrifice.


UNCERTAIN FUNDING


The reform of public-sector pensions had both Peter Phillips and Andrew Holness in a quandary last Tuesday. Apart from all the details of differing sectoral entitlements, the huge unanswered question is where Government's contribution to any new pension fund will come from.
Do the maths. In addition to the increasing liability every succeeding year beyond this Budget allocation, the public-sector workers will be demanding that, going forward, Government will be matching their five per cent contribution in cash.
And you can bet that in the current wage negotiations, every single bargaining group will be sticking up the rest of us not only for the best increments they can get so as to take home more, but for extra to make up for whatever sum will start to be deducted as their pension savings.
It is likely then that the taxpayer will end up continuing to pay the whole of the bill.
That class of money can only come from extra taxes or lower spending on capital or programmes. That is unless the nation is really prepared to take on the rationalisation of the entire public service, aligning it in function, size and remuneration, not to tradition, history and tenure, but to competence, efficiency and growth priorities.
That debate has not even started yet. Parliament has not even seen the blueprint for public-sector reform that Ruddy Spencer promised from last year. One is forced to wonder if this is being supressed until after the wage negotiations.


WASTE AND CORRUPTION


Last Tuesday, Andrew Holness said that if waste and corruption in the public sector were curtailed, we would be in a better position to contribute to proper pensions. Peter Phillips asked him into which of those two categories, waste or corruption, the prime minister of all Jamaica would classify the $800-million bush-clearing last November.
There was no answer. The "clear and present danger" applies not only to pensioners, but to the nation's entire growth enterprise. The public must judge whether the consciousness and resolve to confront these crises is evident among the members of Gordon House.
And two postscripts: I keep asking the House leadership when we will deal with the shameful absence of a state-sponsored public education programme on the dangers of smoking cigarettes, ganja, 'grabba' or anything else? Money for this has been left out of the Budget again this year. But there is no time to deal with anything but the Government's agenda.
Tuesday's session did not begin until nearly 3 p.m. The ladies from St Andrew High had come before the scheduled 2 p.m. to hopefully be inspired by the healthy discourse of their governors. No doubt because of our disrespect for time and for them, I noticed that they had to leave before the debate really began.
What lesson have we taught them?
- Ronald Thwaites is a member of parliament for Central Kingston and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.