Mon | Dec 11, 2017

Orville Taylor | Audley's phoney excuses

Published:Sunday | July 16, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Finance Minister Audley Shaw really stubbed his toe on the cell phone issue even as Prime Minister Andrew Holness gave clear and decisive guidelines for him to take the necessary steps to fall in line with accepted standards of probity when spending government money on cell phone services.

Shaw, a former successful businessman, racked up a healthy J$8.34-million bill between March 2016 and February 2017. It has been reported that he has since reimbursed the Government some J$2.6 million out of the total, but my first concern is what the hell could have happened for the amount to be so high.

Audley is one of my favourite politicians. A very personable man, he is generally pleasant and will engage in conversations unless, of course, it is a pesky reporter who treats interviews as obstacle courses. Indeed, he is not one of those short-time politicians and would gladly accept that he is a long-distance man. However, in as much as he is known to rove from Christiana to Kingston, as he did from the People's National Party Youth Organisation (PNPYO) to the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), he clearly is not as much of a Man a Yard as we think, because it looks like he roams beyond the ordinary and he is every bit of a 'long-distance stulla'.

That he has paid a portion of the bill to the Government, presumably because these were for private calls, is on the face of it taking responsibility. Of course, sceptics among us are asking whether or not he would have remitted the money if no one had broken the story that his phone charges were higher than a glutton's cholesterol level. It is a big deal (enough of the fast food analogies), but it is totally unacceptable that the man who holds on the nation's purse can afford to take his eyes off his own drawstrings.

 

NOT AN IDIOT

 

Audley is not an idiot, and as happy as he behaves generally, there is no assumed bliss in his ignorance. Two months, August 2016 and October 2016, stick out with massive charges of J$1.5 million and J$4.2 million, respectively. The explanation was that he was travelling extensively doing both the country's work and on personal business. Doubtless, the job of finance minister is extremely important and demanding. After all, I would have no issue with him travelling out of the country with more frequency than bad news leaving here. Reportedly, checks revealed that a large portion of the charges are for data. Furthermore, there were very extenuating and challenging family matters that made it necessary to ramp up the communication with home. I am not going to join the uncharitable train, because family is everything, and it is acceptable to run your pocket dry when dealing with such priorities. My problem, and a very big one, is that he did not have the presence of mind to make the adjustments on his phone settings. Therefore, he racked up unnecessary roaming and data charges.

True, that might be the explanation; but that is a reason, not an excuse. When you are spending the citizens' hard-earned money, you as the principal thread bag holder must watch every penny. It is not yours to spend frivolously, and it is immaterial that he is repaying the excess which he apparently used for his personal business. Nonetheless, he shouldn't have allowed the bill to become so gravid in such a short time. Thus, explanations that the charges might be for data transmission are neither here nor there. Data charges are so voracious that I sometimes wonder how unemployed people and underpaid workers are even able to use social media and WhatsApp.

But back to the minister. I recall some years ago when I might have been the only oasis in a desert of media practitioners who were dragging him over the sand, making associations between the stewardship of his personal business affairs and his ability to run the country's budget. However, when the ability to monitor is literally at one's fingertips, he either is too negligent or nonchalant or has the wrong set of support staff surrounding him and keeping vigilance. Administrative personnel and personal assistants who don't do so are derelict, but that still doesn't absolve him from knowing.

 

NOT WATCHING HIS STEP

 

More important, Shaw is trained in communication and must understand the dynamic of stepping into the faecal matter passed by other mammals, especially if one's own nose and eyes saw it earlier. A mere three years ago, my media colleagues removed the veil from the People's National Party (PNP) and its exorbitant phone bills. In a manner of speaking, then junior foreign affairs minister Arnaldo Brown became the fall guy with his bill of $1.09m for the year. Audley has - again in a manner of speaking - hurdled that, rolled it over eight times, becoming a bigger fall guy. Given this history, Shaw should have been far more vigilant, even from a political perspective.

Still, it would be interesting to note that the range of phone bills for the JLP ministers whose information was available is pretty much the same as the PNP in 2014. Junior Finance Minister Fayval Williams' bill is just below J$819,000. However, between July 2013 and June 2014, then Environment Minister, Bobby Pickersgill's bill was J$791,000 and then Health Minister Fenton Ferguson's two cell phones charges of $749,000 for the year were no baby-sized figure.

Interestingly, I would have liked to see what was the rate for the then Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips, so as to get a better picture of how bad the anomaly is.

Yet, the solution in placing the offender to watch the line is a bit of a joke. Holness is putting in place some interesting checks and balances with the finance minister giving oversight. Come on! If Shaw can let the charges rise up under his nose without noticing, Holness knows that this is putting the cat to watch the pigeons.

- Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI, a radio talk-show host, and author of 'Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets'. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline