Wed | Oct 18, 2017

Editorial | Audley Shaw, scandal and the hen house

Published:Thursday | July 13, 2017 | 12:00 AM

We would warn Arnoldo Brown, the patronage-embracing ex-Member of Parliament (MP), against breaking out into celebratory somersaults. For, there is nothing exculpatory for him in Finance Minister Audley Shaw's high mobile telephone bill, for which the Government paid until the matter became a public scandal.

For while Mr Shaw's J$8.334 million phone bill for the year to March 2017 was more than seven-and-half times higher than what was incurred by the former junior foreign minister in the year to June 2014, both men demonstrated a callous disregard for their fiduciary responsibilities and were more than loose with taxpayers' money.

If we make a concession to Mr Brown, it is only because we always considered him egregiously piddling and callow. In Mr Shaw's case, empathy for his personal circumstances notwithstanding, we find it difficult to be sympathetic to his handling of this situation on several fronts.

 

CHIEF STEWARD OF NATION'S FINANCES

The most important of these is that Mr Shaw is the finance minister, and therefore, the chief steward of the country's finances. It is an important job - the only one in the Cabinet, apart from the Prime Minister's, that the Constitution insists be held by an elected member of parliament.

We appreciate that as a senior minister, with responsibility for a complex portfolio, Mr Shaw's continuous access to reliable and fast information and telecommunications systems to facilitate necessary, and often instant, communications with all the various stakeholders with whom he must interact. We expect that sometimes these communications must be over secure lines.

So maybe in other places and in different circumstances, a telephone bill of the size of Mr Shaw's might not be deemed excessive. Except that Audley Shaw is the finance minister for Jamaica, a low middle-income developing country, whose per capita GDP is a little over US$5,000 and about a fifth of the population lives below the poverty line. Further, he presides over a fiscal austerity programme aimed at a lasting downward shift in the trajectory of the country's high debt and the stability of the macro-economy. The public's acceptance of, and confidence in, these often painful policies, is helped if they perceive that those who design and enforce them also bear the burden of their implementation.

 

ROAMING CHARGES

Implicit in Mr Shaw's explanations - or in one of them - is his apparent inability to manipulate the technology he uses. He runs up big bills for voice telephony and data when he travels - on private or official business. Like Mr Brown, he seemingly never disconnected his expensive roaming services to make use of no-charge Wi-Fi.

It is surprising that this administration had no protocol for management of ministerial communication and for the monitoring of its costs, and even more so that Minister Shaw is the Cabinet member so deeply mired in the resulting effluent.

Indeed, Arnoldo Brown's fatuous handling of the telephone controversy of 2014 was grist for the political mill, which, no doubt, contributed to his displacement from Parliament. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), now in government, ground hard Mr Brown's, and other ministers', financially infelicitous use of their mobile phones. Further, Audley Shaw has built a career exposing/highlighting scandal, which he still does if he sees in it political advantage.

That the finance minister has paid back some of the money and negotiated a discount with his telecoms provider is welcome, as is Prime Minister Andrew Holness' move to establish a cap on ministerial phone bills and greater accountability in the system. But Mr Holness shouldn't ask the mongoose to be the overseer of the hen house.

He assigned the job of devising the new telephone protocol to the finance ministry, of which Mr Shaw is the boss, and whose officials, failed, by their claim, to advise him, until it was becoming a public scandal, about the stratospheric reach of his phone bill.