Wed | May 31, 2023

Editorial | Which skin, Mr Holness?

Published:Friday | May 26, 2023 | 12:18 AM
Prime Minister Andrew Holness
Prime Minister Andrew Holness

Even though we are uneasy with the route that was used to get there, this newspaper – as it declared previously – has no fundamental disagreement with the dollar value of the new salaries for parliamentarians and Cabinet ministers.

However, prime ministers don’t have the privilege of selective morality. Neither do they have the privilege of changing skins for the political circumstance – as Bruce Golding once suggested his predecessor, Portia Simpson Miller was attempting to do. There is no escaping being the prime minister.

That is why Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ decision to decline his own salary increase – ostensibly in solidarity with Jamaicans who complained that the hike was outrageous – while keeping in place those for other MPs is a logical nonsense that makes a mockery of collective decision-making by the Cabinet and the prime minister’s leadership of that body.

Public anger erupted 10 days ago when the finance minister, Nigel Clarke, announced the new salary scales for MPs as part of a broader reclassification of jobs and wages in the public sector. According to Dr Clarke, no public sector employee over the three-year adjustment period, up 2024, will have a salary hike of less than 20 per cent. For some, the increase will be more than 200 per cent. Most will fall between those two extremes.

The adjustments, the government said, was in keeping with a long-standing effort to attract and keep talented staff in the public service.

LINKS SALARIES

The problem, however, is that the government maintained the formula for compensating MPs that links their salaries to the earnings of top civil servants. The tradition is that a Cabinet minister earns J$52 a year (J$1 per week) more than a permanent secretary, the top civil servant in a ministry, who received healthy hikes. The upshot was the Prime Minister Holness’ salary, based on its link to pay at the top of the band for permanent secretaries, would from last April have jumped by 144 per cent, to J$22.3 million. In 2024 it would reach J$28.6 million – an increase of more than 214 per cent over three years.

Other than the deputy prime minister and the minister of finance, for whom the gap is narrow, Cabinet members will receive 75 per cent of the prime minister’s salary. Previously, it was two-thirds. That will immediately move their emoluments to J$17.9 million, a hike of 159 per cent. In 2024 their pay will be J$22.9 million. The salaries of regular MPs will move from the current J$4.33 to J$14.3 in 2024.

These disclosures came on the back of the disgruntlement of some public sector workers, especially among teachers, over sloppy implementation of the adjustments; claims that the government had failed to act swiftly to address anomalies thrown up by the reclassifications; and arguments that politicians were awarding themselves too much.

These attitudes are exacerbated by a feeling among some public sector groups that they were railroaded by Dr Clarke to agree to the wage packages early with his insistence that if they didn’t sign before the end of the 2022-23 fiscal year (March 30) their retroactive payments would take years.

In the face of the backlash, Mr Holness ordered that the adjustments for the prime minister be abandoned.

“Quite apart from the skills and efforts they bring to the job and the responsibilities they bear, for which they should be compensated, there is also an expectation that politicians must show solidarity with the suffering of the people,” Mr Holness said. “Given the stage of the development of our democracy these feelings should not be ignored.”

So, clearly, the prime minister still believes the increases were appropriate. Indeed, he encouraged ministers and MPs to accept their new pay. Contradictorily, however, he expects only himself to stand in solidarity “with the suffering people”.

COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY

A fundamental principle of Cabinet government is collective responsibility. The increases to MPs and the political executive weren’t the result of prime ministerial fiat. They would have been deliberated on, and agreed to, by the entire Cabinet. The wage hikes reflect Cabinet policy, which would have been recorded in a Cabinet minute.

Clearly, governments can reverse policies if they are patently wrong, the timing isn’t right or for political reasons. What, however, is not expected is this hybrid exercise – the attempt to be half pregnant.

Either Mr Holness stands by the government’s policy because he and his Cabinet believe it to be right and a principle worth defending, or they acquiesce to the demands of the dissenters and withdraw it all together and find a new formula for determining how MPs are paid.

Again, this newspaper finds nothing abhorrent in the proposed quantum of the prime ministerial pay. We would have preferred that it was the outcome of a review of an independent commission and that having set the base, future increases would be linked to transparent performance criteria.

In this regard, as we suggested previously, the 2004 report of the committee chaired by Oliver Clarke (which recommended a standing independent salary commission for MPs) is a useful starting point. It would be also worthwhile to poke through the files in search of Carl Stone’s 1991 report on the same subject.

In the meantime, the PM should, on this question of the current salaries, determine which skin he dons, the prime minister’s, or Andrew Holness’, and how in the execution of public policy he decides which one is appropriate.