Neither pace nor spin could contain the eruption over the salary increases by ministers of the government, to themselves. The usually mild mannered Minister of State, Joe Harmon, tried pace. “I have no apologies to make.” The technically adept Minister of Finance, Winston Jordan, tried spin – “I maintain that these changes were necessary.” These efforts and others (the AG said the increases were ‘transparent’ and Minister Trotman said ‘trust us’) have failed to ease the political controversy, which has continued with unabated ferocity for two weeks. Back to back editorials in Stabroek News and Red Thread’s ‘fat cat politrickian’ cartoon, advertising a picketing demonstration on October 14, have underlined public dismay at the substantial salary increases. If there was any doubt about it before, the honeymoon for the APNU+AFC Government is surely now over.
Between 1957 and 1964, the totality of salary and benefits for a minister was $840.00 (then about US$420) per month with $120.00 as a travel allowance and a driver. In order to attract Shridath Ramphal, who had served as Deputy Attorney General of the West Indian Federation and was then in private practice in Jamaica, the PNC-UF coalition government in 1964 offered him a salary of $4,000.00 tax free as Attorney General. The salaries of ministers remained the same.
Thus commenced a fifty-year anomaly with the Attorney General earning one million plus, tax free, and everybody else, including the President, earning far less at the end of 2006. In his second term, President Jagdeo increased his own salary above the Attorney General but did nothing to reduce the gargantuan disparity between the President and Attorney General on the one hand and ministers of government on the other, being even greater when taxes, which the President and Attorney General do not pay, are deducted from ministers’ salaries. In increasing his own salary, the President no doubt had his eyes on his pension, which is calculated on the highest salary. Even though under the PPP ministers’ salaries were increased in about 1994 and substantially so from 2001, by 2011 President Jagdeo and the Attorney General were taking home about five times as much as a minister. Of course, no minister dared to complain.
There had been numerous occasions since 1973, when Ramphal left to take up the post of Secretary General of the Commonwealth, for the anomaly in salaries between the Attorney General and ministers to be resolved. But nothing was done. In fact, the salaries of judges, the Chancellor and the Chief Justice climbed far above those of ministers, no doubt using the Attorney General’s salary as the template.
This situation where the President and Attorney General take home about five times that of a Minister and where judges take home thrice and more as much as ministers, faced the APNU+AFC Government when it entered office. No one denies that some rectification was needed. But how could the many experienced politicians in the Government not have known that the collective national senses would revolt against the Cabinet awarding itself any increases at all, much less fifty percent in most cases, with public servants and seniors having received less than promised on account of shortage of resources and with electricity and water subsidies being removed from seniors? How could the Government not know that fixing your own salaries from the public purse, which is taxpayers’ moneys held in trust, is an abuse of that trust and of the electorate’s trust? How could the Cabinet not understand that this is a blatant case of a conflict of interest, as severe as any that can be imagined?
The Government had a golden opportunity to begin the move away from the arrogance and the discredited practices of the past. Repeated suggestions are in the public domain, articulated not long ago by Henry Jeffrey, for the establishment of a statutory structure comprising various sectors of the society to periodically review salaries of government ministers as exists in many countries, including neighbouring ones. Even if this were not possible within the time frame that the Government had in mind, an ad hoc, independent, committee was possible.
The deleterious consequences of this ill-advised act of self-indulgence, bereft of sensitivity, violative of principle, devoid of support except from its beneficiaries, will continue to seep into the national consciousness and will eventually coagulate around negative perceptions, usually expressed in the dismissive – ‘they’re all the same.’ The short-sighted manner, the deceptive process and the defiant tones which accompanied the decision, will colour the outlook by which the Administration is viewed, including by its friends and well-wishers.
If the Government wants to recover some semblance of rectitude it may wish to consider the establishment of a permanent, statutory, structure, to which reference has been made above, and publicly commit to asking the body to review the recent increases and decide whether they are compatible with normally accepted principles and the disparities that existed immediately before the increases. Such a concession, a variation of the suggestion made by Christopher Ram, would go a far way in removing public disquiet over the matter, which disquiet would remain, even when the matter is overtaken by other events.