Accounting for public travel expenditure
Government travel expenditure is once again in the news as official travel expenditure is projected to increase by some four million dollars. This follows upon existing official travel allocation, which was increased by over $5 million over the last fiscal period. When challenged to justify that increase, the minister of finance claimed it was “partly a reporting error”.
While an increase in travel expenditure was necessary and entirely justifiable following Dorian, so too was a need to reduce international travel.
The increase in expenditure on travel fits uncomfortably into the pattern of travel expenditure by the Free National Movement (FNM) government since its election.
This is surprising since the FNM indicated that it was inclined to investigate the excessive travel expenses of its Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) predecessor in office.
The last PLP administration’s unnecessarily large delegation to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka in 2013, which then continued on to Rome for an audience with the Pope and finally on to London for investment discussions, set the standard for a term in office that would be marked by extravagant travel. Former Prime Minister Perry Christie’s undertaking to the media to provide an accounting for the travel to CHOGM, Rome and London and for subsequent travels by his government never materialized, providing no basis for the PLPs’ present outrage over increasing travel expenditure.
The Minnis administration is following in PLP footsteps.
Barely five months in office, the new minister of education had to act as prime minister because of the simultaneous absence from the country of nine ministers including both the prime minister and the deputy prime minister.
The prime minister was in Dominica with the minister responsible for foreign affairs, Darren Henfield, and the minister responsible for immigration, Brent Symonette.
At the same time, the deputy prime minister was in Massachusetts with the attorney general, Carl Bethel, minister responsible for public works, Desmond Bannister, minister responsible for transport, Renward Wells, minister for the public service, Brensil Rolle, and minister responsible for Grand Bahama, Kwasi Thompson. The purpose of this trip remains unclear.
Then, in April 2018, fresh from attending the Eighth Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru, where the prime minister was accompanied by a delegation of three cabinet ministers, a number of their spouses, two senior advisory officers and a number of other officials, the prime minister travelled to London with a similar, if not larger-sized delegation, to attended CHOGM 2018.
The delegation to Lima was substantially larger than delegations to earlier Summits of the Americas in Miami, Chile, Canada, Colombia or Trinidad and Tobago.
In September of the same year, the prime minister was accompanied to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) by another large delegation of three cabinet ministers, a back bencher and chair of a statutory body, three senior advisors and additional officers and staff.
Post Dorian, the prime minister travelled with three cabinet ministers and officials to the November ceremonial opening of The Bahamas Mission to the European Union in Brussels.
There is no objection to relevant official travel. There are, however, obvious reasons why international travel should be curtailed considering required increased expenditures following Dorian.
And, although evacuations and medical emergency flight are to be expected following the size catastrophe as was Dorian, anecdotal information on daily travel by sizable numbers of government officials between the capital and Grand Bahama and Abaco post-Dorian were excessive and unnecessary.
During nearly three years in office, the Minnis-led FNM government has failed miserably to live up to its pre-election hype of transparency and accountability.
Like the PLP, the FNM is refusing to account for monies spent. This FNM administration is very unlike previous FNM administrations which made a point of regularly reporting travel expenditures to Parliament.
The auditor general has done a commendable job in exposing fraud and abuse of public monies.
We suggest that an audit of official travel by the auditor general is now overdue.