Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Patria-Kaye Aarons | The power is in your hands

Published:Tuesday | July 18, 2017 | 7:00 AM

Last week, we learnt about Audley Shaw's $8,000,000 phone bill. Allow me to dwell on the subject for just a moment more. Yes, these things are often soon forgotten, but I'm still within the nine-day wonder window. Humour me.

Can you imagine coming home, opening the envelope with your mobile charges for the year, and seeing a figure bigger than your annual salary? My bladder would immediately rupture. Audley's basic salary as minister of finance is $5.9m, his bill is $8m, and his bladder is still intact. That's no easy feat.

It was a sobering moment for me when I realised that today, even if I liquidated all my assets, I still couldn't pay Audley Shaw's phone bill. And I strongly suspect that most Jamaicans are in the same position.

With $8 million cash, you can:

- buy a modest one-bedroom apartment.

- provide full scholarships to two engineering students for their entire degree.

- buy every high school in Jamaica one new laptop.

- pay 17 security guards for a year.

- start most (if not all) of the businesses I suggested last week.

You get my drift, it's a lot of money. More money than most Jamaicans will have. Many will never afford to be able to do any of the above in a lifetime, let alone this month.

 

CRITICAL ISSUES

 

However, let's look beyond the figure. Even after the nine days have passed, there are still critical issues to be addressed, like how this wasn't caught by the financial secretary before it got to this stage? What's the procedure for signing off on phone or any other utility bills in government ministries to ensure that wastage and abuse are curtailed? When will all the ministers and their admins be sent on Roaming 101 courses?

I look forward to those answers and more. However, today, I want to celebrate our ability to ask questions. I want to laud the Access to Information Act of 2002. As a people, we have a right to ask questions of our public officials and institutions, and we have a right to get answers. The Access to Information (ATI) Act guarantees that right. We would never have known about Audley Shaw's phone bill (and apparently neither would he) had an ATI request not been made by TVJ to see the phone spend of our government ministers.

 

KEEP ON PUSHING

 

It's a piece of legislation my colleagues in the media have used on several occasions to bring craftily covered secrets to light. And I applaud them for it. I say keep on pushing. Many incompetencies and inefficiencies are buried beneath layers of bureaucracy and paperwork. The ATI allows for them to be brought to light.

I take this opportunity to remind every citizen that the ATI Act is available to all of us as well, not just the media. In an era where we strive to keep our politicians honest and to hold them accountable, the channels to ask questions and to challenge the answers we get are good.

Can't seem to catch your MPs? Send an ATI request with your questions. They are obligated to answer within 30 days. And if they don't, there are sanctions. Want to know something of any ministry, put it in writing as an ATI request. The law says they must respond to you.

How your tax dollars are being spent is not classified information. Reach out to your public bodies and ask, and if the answer is too complicated or doesn't sit well with you, ask some more.

We have little excuse to be apathetic. ATI is one of the few things that remind me of the power people have. Now if only we will put it to use. Ask questions.

- Patria-Kaye Aarons is a television presenter and confectioner. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and findpatria@yahoo.com, or tweet @findpatria.