Thu | Apr 26, 2018

Mark Wignall | Shared sacrifice with expensive rides?

Published:Sunday | April 1, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Will Major General Rocky Meade (centre), chief of defence staff of the Jamaica Defence Force, tap into public approval for a military coup in the face of meteoric murder and corruption?
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In 2009 at the height of the crippling global recession that saw a significant rise in unemployment as some businesses closed and others scaled back, Prime Minister Bruce Golding took a 15 per cent pay cut, his MPs took 10 per cent, and when he asked the opposition PNP members to do the same, they declined.

At no time did Bruce Golding seriously believe that the monies saved would be a significant anything to add to the Consolidated Fund. Some people were losing their jobs and the economy was in no-man's land. It was a largely symbolic move by Golding designed to tell the nation that its prime minister understood the pain, the displacement and the uncertainties.

It is customary for outgoing ex-ministers to purchase the government cars they had grown used to during their glory days. The deal is sweet, and if it's only one term on the clock, all the better. The rates of depreciation defy real-market pricing and, because the situation suits both the incoming set of winners and the outgoing batch of losers and the public cares little about it, the arrangement continues.

A few days after winning the 2016 election, Prime Minister Holness said he wanted to discontinue the practice of outgoing ministers purchasing the vehicles they drove. The obvious implication is that it forced the new administration to repurchase new cars.

Easier said than done. After the election, the PM drove what was considered a relic. Previously driven by P.J. Patterson, Bruce Golding and Portia Simpson Miller, it eventually took its last breath and broke down while the PM was on the way to a funeral.

In recent days, The Gleaner used an ATI request and determined that the PM drives a 2017 BMW 740 Li reported to cost J$16.7 million. The total cost for the JLP fleet was $190 million. Well, I suppose that things are not that tight anymore. Just ask police, teachers, nurses, firemen and all those in the government services.

Ministers Chris Tufton, Daryl Vaz, Kamina Johnson and Shahine Robinson are driving vehicles previously driven by their counterparts in the PNP. Apart from Fayval Williams, who drives her own vehicle, all the other political heavyweights are driving expensive new vehicles.

 

Politicians and perks

 

A conflict always exists whenever people get together to discuss politicians. The general view among many is that they are all rascals and are in the game to increase the size of their bank balance and their personal real-estate footprint. The more progressive, if not somewhat jaded, view is that the country needs to make the political landscape more inviting to upstanding citizens so that it will get more of those who actually want to advance the lives of the least among us.

By that reasoning, no one should be complaining over the cost of the PM's car. It's just under $17 million. Would it terribly matter had it been $20 million? How about $30 million? What price do we determine is right and fitting for a car for the prime minister of a country like Jamaica? And for those of his ministers?

Politicians are always reminding us that they come to serve, but we know that idea is mostly laughed at on the uptown party circuit. 'Teacher' Ruel Reid and Everald Warmington are driving $10-million Toyota Prados. That automatically means that the PM could never drive a vehicle with a price below $10 million because, after all, he is the prime minister, and his car must not only be top of the line but top of the price list. It's how we do it here to separate the man from lesser men.

 

Placing car prices into perspective

 

Although politicians are our servants and we the people are the bosses, the reality is totally different and is a mockery to the basic tenet of a democracy and a republic.

The average Jamaican purchasing a car is probably looking for a vehicle below $2 million. It will be about five years old, and if he gave the bank $400,000 as deposit, he or she will find the monthly payment of just under $40,000 at times quite challenging. Each year he must pay his taxes/fees for licence, fitness and insurance.

The prime minister and the members of his Cabinet in expensive rides get us to do the payment for them. And those ministers know that if the worst should happen and the election is lost in 2020, all of those cars, immaculately kept and maintained, will be theirs for the purchasing at ridiculously depreciated prices. Drive away from one's loss with a fancy ride.

Our society is the type that encourages our 'bosses' to act and look like bosses. We want our pastors to drive expensive rides even as we struggle with the social vagaries of public transportation. Many may not have much in the way of material trappings, but many view their successes vicariously. "A fi mi boss dat. Him nuh drive nuh eediat car."

Successive governmental administrations are always saddled by waste. Each month there is another revelation by the auditor general of skulduggery and profligate spending in some previously unheard of arm of government.

Fancy cars for government ministers is not the country's most pressing problem but, like it or not, it tells us something about ourselves. It may well be that the present Holness administration has convinced itself that the financial structures that existed in 2009 do not now exist and in that he would be right.

Just coming out of a contentious battle with the police and teachers over wages, the revelation of these fancy rides for government ministers adequately shows up the extent to which political power can insulate itself from the real plight of the real people who keep this polity working.

 

Jamaicans, you are not thinking

 

I am not at all surprised that a plurality of Jamaican would not mind seeing the army take over if corruption and criminality become uncontrollable.

A full 59 per cent said they would support the army in a coup in the face of high criminality and 53 per cent would do so under high rates of corruption. This came out of a recent study funded by the USAID.

Every four years in this country, we have an election. If the party in power loses, it steps away and hands over the reins of power to the winners. On the outside, the police and the army remain unchanged and both continue to uphold the tradition of accepting the non-military, non-armed political sector as their effective bosses.

The supposition of these people who support a coup by the army is that once order is restored, the army commanders will just willingly hand back power to the civilian authorities. That is a joke simply because there will be no guarantee that such power will be ceded.

Way back in the 1970s when hardly anything that was reported didn't have the tint of politics attached to it and was hardly believable, there was a report that a few army boys were plotting a coup. Nothing came of it.

I know that it ought to be tempting when the society seems to be spinning out of control because of violent criminality and corruption at all levels for heads of the army and, who knows, the JCF to talk in hushed tones about seizing power and righting the ship. What I believe brings sanity to that burst of thought is the endgame.

It is easy to seize power. It will be even more difficult to hold it, but even if one assumes the army (alongside the police) takes control, what does it do about administering the structures of governance?

That is what I believe would make all of those bright and capable officers at Up Park Camp stop and think. The people have not reached there yet.

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