Sat | Dec 14, 2019

Editorial | Talk seriously about how to pay MPs

Published:Friday | November 22, 2019 | 12:37 AM

Although a frequent critic of the sloth of Jamaica’s Parliament and the often imbecilic behaviour of its members, Ronald Thwaites is also cognisant of how badly members of parliament (MPs) are paid and isn’t ashamed to make a case for better remuneration as he did again this week in his column in this newspaper.

But Mr Thwaites expects that when a motion to that effect comes for debate in the House shortly, many of his fellow MPs “will defy justice and equity, hide their own needs, feign pretence”, and run for cover. We expect so, too. And we understand why.

MPs anticipate, and fear, a reflexive public backlash against their kind, who nearly half of Jamaica believes to be corrupt and in whom they have little trust. That, though, will be the wrong attitude. It is long past time for a frank debate on the basis on which politicians are compensated and putting in place a credible, and transparent, mechanism for making adjustments.

Broadly, it is expected that when people throw their hats into the political ring and go through the harsh audition for the job, a process called elections, they would have done so with a sense of altruism and a desire to serve. They ought to be beyond corruption. Human nature, however, is subject to temptation. While personal greed is a driver of crooked behaviour, people are more likely to succumb to its pressures if they are in need and, as is the case of politicians, exercise substantial influence and power.

In Jamaica, the basic pay of a government minister is around J$5.6 million a year, which is approximately seven per cent less than what an ordinary MP earns in Barbados. An ordinary Jamaican MP earns around 40 per cent less than his/her Barbadian counterpart.

At not much over J$7 million, the Jamaican prime minister’s basic salary is around half of his Barbadian counterpart.

The benefits and retirement plans for Jamaican MPs, those who survive the electorate long enough to qualify for pensions, are not great. After politics, in retirement, honest MPs often have to scrounge to meet healthcare and other bills.

At the same time, political representation has evolved, largely, into a system of social welfare rather than a process of advocacy on behalf of constituents. Or, as Leslie Campbell, a governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) representative, put it in a recent interview, when he goes into his St Catherine constituency, “every second man I see, his palm is turned up”. In other words, voters, in their economic stringency, exact a personal cost on political representation.

Clearly, there is need for a conversation on the conduct of politics in Jamaica, including how to change the clientelism approach to, and expectation of, representation. But that, of itself, won’t address a formula for paying MPs, with which Jamaica has struggled for more than four decades, going back to 1976 when then prime minister Michael Manley, asked businessman, Leslie Ashenheim to propose pay hikes for legislators.

STILLBORN IDEAS

In the early 1980s, a task force appointed by Mr Manley’s successor, Edward Seaga, led by banker Ron Sasso, proposed an independent body to conduct periodic reviews of the emoluments of parliamentarians. Many of that group’s ideas were endorsed by a committee headed by businessman Aaron Matalon in a probe of allegations of conflicts of interest of public officials in their execution of a Government project.

Thirty years ago, on his return to Government, Mr Manley, hoping to settle the issue, charged a bipartisan parliamentary group to review these reports and make recommendations. That didn’t happen.

Then in 2004, a new task force, appointed by then prime minister PJ Patterson, and led by Oliver Clarke, recommended that the pay of ministers, and other legislators, be linked to specific performance targets such as the differential in inflation between Jamaica and its main trading partners and how well MPs serviced their constituencies. Those ideas, too, were stillborn.

The Clarke report provides, in our view, good outlines for a mechanism for determining how to compensate MPs rather than this putting a finger to the wind for a feel of public sentiment to decide on their salaries.

Better pay won’t eliminate corruption, but it certainly removes any cause for sympathy with bad behaviour.