Daniel Thwaites | Parliament poppy-show
Because of the near certainty of misinterpretation in what I'm about to discuss, I want to point out that my editor occasionally goads me into writing about a news story by forwarding it to me with a provocative comment. The implication, of course, is that like the circus-monkey of yore, if you drop a copper nickel into the can, the beast will just perform - or in this monkey's case, comment.
Naturally, I don't care to pursue the full implication of this learned behaviour, except to say that I'm currently working with my professional therapist (my gardener) to adjust this behaviour pattern.
Anyway, the story sent to me this past week was about the resignation of MP for North East St Elizabeth, Evon Redman, who "says his career in politics has been taking a toll on his private business".
Said Redman: "The two just could not work ... . My business, which you know I operate, could not get my full attention. I have to be going to funeral, to nine-night and I have to be attending to the people and I have to be running the business ... . I cannot run both effectively ... . anything that I do, I like to give it 100 per cent."
Now, when alligator come from river bottom, yuh done know how de ting guh. If it is impossible to run a business while giving full representation, what does that tell you? Why and how are people in there?
GETTING WHAT WE PAID FOR
Which is another way of saying that we are getting what we're paying for. This is one of those pretty reliable guiding rules of life. If you buy cheap shoes, you don't expect them to stay shiny and criss for very long. And if yuh tek up a girlfriend that's a crackwhore, you will, despite your perhaps exciting life, find that other problems arise.
I'm not saying that you can't get a deal every now again, even in the crackwhore arena, but to count on that as a general principle for conducting the nation's affairs seems unduly optimistic. Plus, you can judge by the sterling results we've been getting this last 50 years or so.
I believe it was the minister without portfolio in the House of the Prime Minister, Juliet Holness, who observed that the post of MP ought to be paid as a full-time position, and there's obvious good and practical sense in that suggestion. Currently, it is treated as sideline work, compensated as such, and as a result it attracts a ragged and very uneven assortment of talent.
JA IS IN DANGER
One insightful commentator blessed me with the unforgettable insight that the country is in danger of attracting mostly "tiefs and eediats" to leadership, because only an eediat or someone with ulterior motives would expose themselves in the way that representational politics now requires. Upon further reflection, though, and as an optimist, I believe there are a few more categories, namely, some rich folk who aren't averse to taking up an expensive hobby, and some stragglers who have a sense of mission.
Which brings me to The Gleaner's campaign against the Constituency Development Fund (CDF), the state provision of discretionary spending guided by and channelled through the sitting MPs. If I may be so presumptuous as to summarise, The Gleaner sees the CDF as ripe for corruption, a dangerous mix-up of roles, and an unfair advantage to the incumbent. In short, the institutionalised pork barrel.
From a righteous point of view, The Gleaner is undoubtedly correct. However, to achieve The Gleaner's aim of abolishing the CDF, some preparatory groundwork would be necessary, lest the tenuous political settlement that is our country falls utterly to pieces.
To start with, we are now at a stage where the voting populace demands and expects the MP to be the provider of resources - what anthropologists would call 'The Big Man' of the tribe - and doesn't care very much about any other role. Legislation? A wah dat? Speaking to friends on either side, I've never ever had report of a discussion with constituents about sponsored motions, legislative achievements, parliamentary dexterity, attendance at committee meetings, or any such thing. I'm sure it must happen occasionally, maybe up in Delroy Chuck's or Fayval Williams' constituency, but that's the unicorn, often referenced but rarely sighted.
So the idea that legislation is the primary role of the MP is an utter figment, meaning also that the practical basis of our supposed constitutional arrangement, and all the highfalutin business of a tripartite separation of powers, is also a grand illusion.
Perhaps this is why Parliament is for the most part useless for what it is supposedly meant to be doing. The Government treats it as an annoying distraction. Questions aren't answered when they're posed to ministers. It's got so bad now we may as well forget the rules. For example, there are outstanding questions about Caricel, the used-car fiasco, the Cornwall Regional Hospital, and many other important national matters, all of which are supposed to be answered promptly, but nowadays dem jus nuh bodda.
Apart from the Public Accounts Committee and the Public Appropriations Committees, none of the others have even been constituted. Dem jus nuh bodda.
Public bodies are mandated to report annually. Many jus nuh bodda, and when they do, the reports aren't even printed up and laid before Parliament. The thinking, I suppose, is that nobody is going to read them.
Then, of course, there's the incivility in Parliament. Civility and decorum? Dem jus nuh bodda.
COUNTRY MPS GET MORE PAY
So back to Evon Redman's tale from the river bottom. For the purposes of this column, this intrepid reporter interrogated a country MP about how he spends his parliamentary pay, inclusive of his travel allowances. Please note that country MPs get more than town MPs because they must travel out into the hinterlands.
He explained that after statutory deductions, he had $320,000. The party (both JLP and PNP do this to contribute to their expenses) then takes 20 per cent, netting him about $280,000.
To travel back and forth on average three times per week to Parliament and committee meetings in Kingston costs him easily $30,000 for gas per week. That's $120,000 for gas for the month. He spends $1,000 each way for tolls, meaning about $6,000 per week and $24,000 per month.
With all the heavy mileage, he services the car about every six weeks at a cost of $80,000. He buys new tyres frequently, about twice yearly, at around $60,000 for the four. Insurance is expensive. Licensing is another cost. If he has to spend the night in Kingston, he has to rent a spot or find family to stay with.
In other words, the travel costs alone nyam out de pay.
My advice to him was "tek bus and kotch at somebody yard when yuh come town", and even though saying that gave me enormous pleasure, I am ready to admit that's not a long-term solution.
Remember now, we haven't touched the funerals, birthday parties, grave-digging, set-up, school fees beyond school vouchers, pharmacy bills, hospital bills, charity tickets, school fund-raising, straight 'let-off', etc.
Let's be clear: I don't expect these comments to generate one wet eye for our representatives. But quite apart from the tremendous time commitment, this does go some way to explaining Mr Redman's comments and also the behaviour of those who linger in the system, including the overpacking of the Cabinet and the mad scramble for executive position among the elected.
While we get what we pay for, we're left wondering how they pay for what they get. It doesn't take a genius to figure that one out.
- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.