EDITORIAL - The perks of politics
Junior Minister for Foreign Affairs Arnaldo Brown has been talking and talking. In contrast, his senior, Minister A.J. Nicholson, has not been talking much over the last 12 months. At least that's what the data about cell phone usage appear to tell us.
Mr Brown is reported to have hit the million-dollar mark for calls and data usage registered between July 2013 and June 2014, while Mr Nicholson's bill is in the region of $230,000. Taxpayers have had to fork out hefty sums for other ministers' cell phone bills, including Robert Pickersgill and Phillip Paulwell. And we must bear in mind that these ministers also use telephones at home and at office which are paid for by the State.
The news report about the amounts government ministers rack up for cell phone usage over the last 12 months has been the hot topic of discussion this week. It was enough to cause a frustrated Jamaican populace to boil over, and the public fury has not died down. In fact, Mr Nicholson has publicly vowed to "confront" Mr Brown when he returns home from his current overseas trip to give an explanation for his cell phone bill.
In response to the furore over what appears to be an excessive bill, Mr Brown has put out a justification statement saying he made 15 overseas trips in the year under review and it was important that while travelling, he keep in touch with his "ministry, key stakeholders and the diaspora".
Once a politician gets into Parliament, he or she discovers a trough overflowing with all sorts of perks and goodies. Ministers enjoy, in addition to their salaries, chauffeur-driven vehicles that are fuelled and fully maintained by the taxpayer. These vehicles are often seen idling outside hotel venues with air condition running while ministers attend various functions on the inside. Additionally, rent is paid, as well as first-class travel and various other allowances, including landlines which are installed at their homes. MP perks and entitlements have always been a vexed issue, yet there are those who have lived on the public purse nearly all of their working life.
The truth is that when a politician becomes a government minister, he or she moves closer to the rich in society and farther away from his constituents who genuinely find a $20 increase in bus fares difficult to handle.
Consumers do get pinched on their cell phone bills, too, and soon realise that roaming charges are hefty. With no one to foot their bill, they have to cut back and make adjustments. However, government ministers talk about austerity and belt-tightening, but they do not practise it. And it's this hypocrisy that riles up people.
This Government has talked a good deal about cost-cutting measures. One may argue that telephone calls, emails and text messages are cheaper than air travel. But in Mr Brown's case, he is still jet-setting and talking on his phone, nonetheless. There needs to be a code of conduct and rules about how entitlements are spent and how they relate to parliamentary business. There needs to be reasonable limits set. This is what happens in any well-run organisation. The people expect no less from their Parliament.
Mr Brown's million-dollar cell phone bill represents something significant to the ordinary man in the street. It signals more waste in Government and a kind of arrogance. The majority of Jamaicans have never seen a million dollars, but they can picture in their minds what it could do - send a child to university for a year, pay off their mortgage, buy a used car, pay medical bills.
The public has had enough and are questioning why they should accept wage freezes when politicians are not themselves making sacrifices. People are offended by what they see as reckless spending and they are demanding greater accountability.
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