Robert Wynter, Contributor
In a recent article, I suggested that the Government's wish for sharing the burden across all socio-economic groups is just that -a wish. The case was made that in a capitalist society, the pricing system is used to counter government's penchant to redistribute wealth and, therefore, pass on burdens to the more vulnerable in our society.
With many calling for the Government to sacrifice, Dr Omar Davies was recently taken to task for suggesting that to cut the Cabinet as a means of symbolic sacrifice has no grounding in reality; and is good material for editorials and smacks of frivolity.
Realising that Jamaicans generally concern themselves much more with tone (how something is said) than with content (what is said), I am not in the least surprised with the critics having experienced the same backlash recently. In fact, several persons viewed Dr Davies' response as an affront simply because he disagreed with a popular sentiment. We must, however, be mature enough to strip away tone and really examine content.
First, I would imagine that Cabinet ministers' salaries form part of the recent heads of agreement signed between the Government and the unions to freeze wages. If not directly part of the agreement, we must assume that ministers' salaries are guided by the agreement and will be frozen through 2015.
Second, we must assume that the prime minister appointed her Cabinet based on the huge task she faced on her ascendancy to the office. If we assume the opposite - that the Cabinet is too big and some are there for the fun of it - that is another discussion.
However, let us give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt and hold her and her team accountable to performance expected of a Cabinet. Therefore, if each Cabinet minister is there to effect transformation, reducing the size of the Cabinet would be a sacrifice for the people of Jamaica, not simply for the Cabinet.
BARKING UP WRONG TREE
The purpose of any organisation, including the government of which the Cabinet forms a part, is to create value or to add value. Whenever a problem arises, we get suggestions that at times have no grounding in value creation. At the height of our crime problem, we were happy with police brutality and 'suspension of rights', as long as those rights belonged to someone else.
With our very poor education outcomes, linked mainly to poor parental support and an education system that has not moved with the times, many now accept the outcomes with the excuse that our children do not have the capability. Therefore, when ISSA tries to raise the education outcomes by insisting on minimum education standards to participate at Boys and Girls' Championships, many cry foul.
While I agree that ISSA has as much responsibility for the national education outcomes as it does for Champs, the two must go together, as the value created by a school must be a 'well-rounded individual well prepared for life with the capacity to contribute to his/her community and the wider world'.
I respectfully disagree with those criticising ISSA and Dr Davies. Calls for symbolic sacrifice by the Cabinet seem to me as barking up the wrong tree.
EXTRACTING GREATER VALUE
Section 70 Subsection 2 of the Jamaica Constitution states: "The Cabinet shall be the principal instrument of policy and shall be charged with the general direction and control of the Government of Jamaica and shall be collectively responsible, therefore, to Parliament." I take this to mean that the Cabinet is collectively accountable to the people of Jamaica, through our elected representatives, for the preservation of rights and improved quality of life of all Jamaicans.
Policy (articulation and effective execution) plays no other role than to preserve rights and to improve the quality of life. We, therefore, ought to be spending more of our time holding the Cabinet accountable for preserving our rights and for improving the quality of our lives than for its size and its wage bill.
Were Mrs Simpson Miller to double the size of her Cabinet and quadruple the salary of each member and it resulted in sustained eight per cent annual GDP growth over a few years, reduction in murders to below 200 annually, reduction in poverty to below two per cent, achieving a pothole-free road network, and 80 per cent of secondary-school graduates matriculating with the necessary qualifications to enter tertiary institutions; would we be asking for symbolic sacrifices? I believe not.
In fact, were Dr Phillips to deliver on five per cent growth or Mr Bunting to deliver on a dramatic fall in crime, I would have no problem giving each gentleman a J$50-million performance bonus after the fact.
The problem is that most of us believe that the above achievements are totally impossible and that it will always be business as usual; therefore, we ask for symbolic sacrifices. It is a classic case of 'If you can't ketch Kwaku, yu ketch him shut.'
BACKGROUND TO UNION DEAL
For the most part of the 1990s, former Jamaica Civil Service Association (JCSA) boss Eddie Bailey argued strongly that public-sector workers should get 80 per cent parity on their wages with the private sector. This was met with strong resistance by those holding the purse strings until 2002 when the then Government significantly raised public-sector salaries to meet Mr Bailey's demand.
Without the commensurate increases in productivity, the fiscal deficit was pushed to dangerously high levels. Instead of resizing, realigning or otherwise raising the productivity of the public sector, the then Government agreed, in 2004, to wage restraint (three per cent increases across the board) in exchange for the preservation of jobs. It was against this background that the infamous memorandum of understanding (MOU) was created.
Any attempts by individual public-sector companies to restructure for increased productivity were resisted by an oversight committee designed to ensure productivity, not to resist it. All promises of retraining were never kept, as the benefit-cost ratio of the wage bill continued to decline. The last 11 years have witnessed several attempts to redress this, as tax package after tax package has failed to temper both the fiscal deficit and the rising public debt.
Now, almost nine years after the launch of MOU1, the hard-working Minister Horace Dalley has convinced the majority of public-sector workers to agree to wage restraint - effectively keeping wages nominally constant through 2015. This agreement is the final step in undoing all that Eddie Bailey set out to accomplish, proving that wage parity without productivity parity becomes an exercise in futility!
In his address, Mr Oneil Grant, the current JCSA boss, indicated that this is the last time the unions will be sacrificing. Mr Grant, his fellow union leaders and their members should have now learnt the very tough lesson that any improvement in their quality of life, via real increases in compensation, must be driven by their own productivity improvement.
I suggest that Mr Grant and his union peers change the basis for negotiations with Minister Dalley from how to share a dwindling national pie to how to expand that pie so we can all benefit. I have already offered my support to Mr Grant and take this forum to publicly repeat my offer of support. Instead of trying to catch his shirt, let us catch Kwaku!
Robert Wynter is managing director of Strategic Alignment Limited, which facilitates organisational transformation and leadership development. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.