Wed | Dec 11, 2019

Glenn Tucker | Pay parliamentarians well

Published:Sunday | November 24, 2019 | 12:28 AM

The angry, negative response of my countrymen to suggestions that our parliamentarians need a salary increase does not surprise me. The lack of clear, rational assessment of situations by large sections of the citizenry is cause for concern.

‘Away with the Governor General ... give us Shaggy’. ‘All politicians corrupt ... dem doa deserve no more money’.

What is wrong with us? What makes us so angry in both words and deeds that we refuse to be objective in our assessments?

The matter at hand is the salary of our parliamentarians and whether it needs adjustment.

It has been reported that one member of parliament (MP) claims that he has to receive ‘gifts’ from contractors to augment his income. And therein lies the problem. Because who determines the size of these ‘gifts’? And who believes that the cost of these ‘gifts’ will not be factored into the cost of the job?

‘The danger is that these ‘gifts’ could soon become a prolonged festive season of larger and larger gifts’ to the detriment of the quality of work done, and eventually, the public purse.

Let me elaborate.

Years ago, when the toll road was being built over the Causeway, I saw asphalt five inches thick laid out on the new road. My immediate assumption was that the dispenser had malfunctioned. A few days later, however, I saw another four inches on top of the five inches. So I stopped and asked the foreign gentleman who seemed to be in charge.

His quick answer was, “ that’s the way roads are built”.

I could be forgiven because for as long as I could remember, no more than half an inch of asphalt on top of some rolled marl was what we got for a road. So where does anyone think the rest of the money for roadwork goes? ‘Gifts’. And the larger the ‘gift’, the thinner the asphalt.

CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS

The United States is not listed as the most corrupt country because there is a nice, legal term for the most egregious acts of corruption. It’s called ‘campaign contributions’. This allows corporate interests to funnel funds to key politicians. These ‘gifts’ are called ‘campaign contributions’, and the assumption is that it is an innocent expression of support for that politician’s programmes. Two of these entities are the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the pharmaceutical industry.

In 2016, the Federal Election Commission claims that the NRA spent more than $16 million on behalf of the Trump campaign. In 2017, however, McClatchy reports that the total size of this campaign ‘gift’ was “... close to $70 million, and perhaps much more...”.

The result is that Americans are dying by the gun at the alarming rate of nearly 40,000 persons per year. Scores of bills are lying in the Senate that propose laws to address this problem. But they will remain ignored. Why? One of America’s comedians put it this way, “…and the NRA has the GOP’s (Republicans) balls in a ‘money clip’.”

L.A. Times columnist wrote an article with the headline ‘Fistfuls of NRA Money’, noting that President Trump and all the key senators are recipients of NRA ‘gifts’, so Americans will continue dying.

The pharmaceutical industry, popularly known as Big Pharma, is another big ‘gifter’ of politicians. Over the course of six election cycles, pharmaceuticals’ political action committees (PACs) have given nearly $79 million to members of Congress. One result is that Congress ignores critical issues like pricing.

So America is lacking in even rudimentary price controls. As a result, Sweden spends, on average, $351 per person each year for drugs while America spends $1,011, this, despite the fact that Americans use fewer prescription drugs. A 10mL insulin capsule in the US costs $450. In Canada, it costs $21.

But most serious is the fact that ‘campaign contributions’ cause Congress to turn its head away from drug manufacturers who are pouring inappropriate chemicals down the throats of Americans.

In 2017, more than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses, making it a leading cause of injury-related death in the US. Sixty-eight per cent of those deaths involved a prescription or illicit opioid. On average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. Only recently – after years – the courts have found these manufacturers guilty and have ordered them to pay hefty fines. The main culprit simply declared bankruptcy, closed its doors, and its principals, now all billionaires, have retired to a life of comfort.

This is the danger of parliamentarians receiving ‘gifts’ from contractors.

ASHAMED

I am, quite frankly, ashamed about what we offer our leaders. Most of my classmates at university would not work for what we are offering our prime minister. In fact, he would be much better off trying for the top post at the University of the West Indies, where the top salary is almost five times what he is getting.

The housing allowance offered to our opposition leader is about $23,000 per month. This would secure him a nice one-bedroom in the Omara Road area. It’s just that he would have to find furniture and share bathroom facilities. Of course, being a true comrade and man of the people, I don’t think he would mind terribly.

There is good reason to calculate one’s salary in US dollars. At today’s rate, our PM would earn US$51,000+ annually. Back benchers would pocket US$24,600 per year.

Time and space do not allow for details, but I would propose a basic salary of the equivalent of US$170,000 for our prime minister, with significant upward adjustments for other parliamentarians.

In addition to these adjustments, the package should include meaningful additions like free tertiary education to the post-graduate level for their children. Also, health insurance that includes the full care of indigent parents.

This country has paid dearly, dearly from these ‘gifts’. They are at the heart of every cost overrun, abandoned project, or collapsed bridge. Many businesses have folded because of the unfair competition when the playing field is not level.

Pay our lawmakers well and jail their sorry asses at the slightest sign of corruption.

- Glenn Tucker is an educator and a sociologist. Email: glenntucker2011@gmail.com and columns@gleanerjm.com