Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Mark Wignall | Real phone bills or authentic government waste?

Published:Sunday | July 16, 2017 | 7:00 AM

There are two views that we can adopt in making a judgement on high mobile-phone bills of Jamaican Cabinet ministers.

One, more a wish and a hope instead of the often proved, stark reality, is that most Cabinet ministers surrounding Prime Minister Andrew Holness are working as a cohesive unit to lay out his 'prosperity' agenda and are fully aware of the extent to which waste at all levels contributes to anaemic growth rates in the country.

With that understanding, if a minister chalked up a $10-million mobile-phone bill in one year, it must have meant that he was working 18-hour days and making overseas calls over many time zones in crafting new growth policies, gaining increased business confidence, new investments, and employment upticks. If

$1 billion worth of FDI came in, we would probably accept the phone bills as high but not make too much of a fuss about it.

Then there is the diametrically opposite perception, usually trending to its own reality, that most Jamaican government ministers are freeloaders and occupiers of posh chairs, reclined at the most relaxed angle, by an oversize desk, gabbing away on the phone with friends, family, acquaintances, and, occasionally, a genuine governmental contact.

Such a minister is usually himself the epitome of governmental waste, that is, his performance is rated two points down from 'miserable' and incompetent. He tires easily, enjoys his role as village chief, while barking idiotic directives at highly competent civil servants, and is always heading to a long lunch. It is rare that he is found in his office after 4 p.m.

Of all of the trappings of the post that he enjoys, such a minister treasures none more than sound of people calling him 'minister' and his security detail running pee-pee-cluck-cluck at his beck and call. It is even likely that he has another mobile, totally on his own account, for intimate outside contacts and other business that is best kept secretive.

For pragmatic purposes, let us assume that Finance Minister Audley Shaw does not fit into either of those two profiles, and at this time, his approach to governance is still mainly unknown to the majority of our people. To do that is also to assume that if you are a diehard PNP supporter, Shaw cannot do anything right and good for this country.

If you are a diehard JLP supporter, it is Shaw who invented sliced bread, and he is in the process of providing you with butter to spread on your prosperity crackers. Even with that, you would have to confess to yourself that Mr Shaw's mobile bill for $4 million for one month and $8 million for the year is a bit steep.

 

Why does Minister Montague pay his own bills?

 

As the easiest and most convenient target in the country at this time for most of what ails us about murders piling on, National Security Minister Bobby Montague can hardly be accused of asking taxpayers to pay his mobile bills.

When we spoke one day last week, he said, "I am not going to comment on my colleagues' phone bills. They are quite competent to do so. But to your question as to why I pay my bills out of my government salary, it is simple. First, the process is not what a lot of people believe it is. Once the bill is presented, the accounting people and others want you to separate the personal from the purely governmental related.

"It is not that I cannot do that, but it becomes a bit bothersome because you cannot recall each and every call and remember exactly what they were related to. So if I call you in response to your message and I am talking to a journalist about a government policy, I don't want to be bothered to make certain distinctions. Takes up too much time, so I just pay the bill out of my pocket."

In 2014 when the matter emerged of a junior minister in the PNP administration running up a mobile bill for $1 million for the year, various mouthpieces in the opposition JLP hauled him over the coals. For that reason, Minister Shaw must expect eight times the noise, the criticism, and the scrutiny.

We must bear in mind that most of us are suckers for punishment in relation to expectations on matters of transparency and accountability whenever a new administration takes office. So with this Government, not quite 18 months old, we bought the sweet promises even though we knew that bitter bromide was there somewhere in the mix.

It troubles me that this matter only came to light because RJR made a request via the ATI route. Had such a request not been made and the revelations kept buried, would Minister Shaw still be 'in the dark' about that mobile data button? Who knows? Maybe next year's bill would be significantly higher than $8 million.

 

Decreasing ministers' mobile bills

 

Were this country realistically in the sweet embrace of prosperity, the most popular pay-as-you-go phonecard credit would be $500 and not the $100 card. Or more of our people would be on the postpaid mobile basis like all of our ministers.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness needs to preach austerity among Cabinet ministers as he touts the message he started in 2015: prosperity. Many times, it is that very idea of ministers chasing down personal prosperity that hinders a government from designing policies to deliver prosperity to significant percentages of our people.

All ministers should have their phones switched to the prepaid basis and learn to truly understand the burden of the people they are pretending to govern. Each month, a minister must have his agenda scripted by his personal assistant. In that, he must have a fairly rough idea of his major phone contacts. At the beginning of each week, he will be issued cards totalling $5,000. If one runs out, he is entitled to another one for $2,500.

Bear in mind that the vast majority of our people purchase cards one at a time and it is mostly the $100 card. So to those people, a minister using up to $7,500 per week in phone credit is definitely in the stratosphere, even if most of the ministers may want to bawl about it.

It is not a terribly difficult matter for a minister to answer the question, what is the minimum amount you would need to spend on mobile bills for a month? Of course, during times of travel, we could never afford to have our ministers sending their personal assistants 'please call me' messages from Brussels or Beijing. In that case, special accommodation would be made.

In the late 1970s, Carl Stone travelled to New York while there was a big international conference of heads of governments taking place. At that time, the Japanese economy was enjoying constant, healthy rates of growth.

He noticed that the Japanese were staying in moderately rated hotels while politicians from the poor African and Caribbean states were almost all in the five-star hotels. Remember now, Japan was reduced to rubble by August 1945.

It cannot be that it is purely a black thing that our people are always hankering after attaining the more instantly gaudy instead of long-term stability brought on by hard work. Maybe it is cultural. It is certainly so for the Japanese, where 'country' has a much bigger value and worth to them than self.

JLP and PNP ministers have never accepted that they are our servants. They laugh about that arrangement with the people, so what is an extra few million dollars out of the pockets of those who can barely afford a $100 phonecard!

- Mark Wignall is a political and public-sector commentator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and

observemark@gmail.com.