Perspective

Our money, our business

The Parliamentary Salaries and Allowances Act should be expanded to set out all benefits afforded to parliamentarians, inclusive of travel, and to require that any changes to the same must be brought to Parliament.

The act should also be amended to require regular reports to Parliament on travel expenditures of all parliamentarians.

These reports can, for instance, be brought every six months (at mid-year and at the tabling of the annual fiscal budget), or can be presented more frequently.

Such legislative changes would enhance transparency and accountability in the use of public funds, and would enable the public to know how their tax dollars are being spent with respect to benefits for parliamentarians.

A commitment to transparency and accountability on the part of any administration is ultimately demonstrated by its willingness to enact legislation that compels it to adhere to widely accepted standards of transparency and good governance.

Last week’s public uproar following Perspective’s revelation of the government’s new travel policy for ministers and their spouses was fueled not only by the vexing pressure of cost of living increases, but also by a feeling of betrayal.

At the heart of this sense of betrayal was the government quietly giving itself more at the expense of taxpayers, even as its tax increases and policies have caused a majority of Bahamians to have and enjoy less.

Cabinet was able to increase its travel benefits and do so without telling the Bahamian people or the Parliament to which it is accountable, because there is currently nothing in law that restricts it from doing so.

When questioned by reporters on why the new travel policy was not announced to the Bahamian people given the Minnis administration’s pledge of transparency and

accountability, Education Minister Jeff Lloyd, who co-chaired Cabinet’s sub-committee on the travel benefits, said, “The majority of decisions that are made in Cabinet are never publicized; we don’t ventilate Cabinet’s discussions and decisions in the public.”

That Lloyd made this statement as though it is an acceptable norm for the government to withhold information on its policies is unfortunate.

More transparency is required

Commonwealth countries throughout the world provide varying degrees of public access to Cabinet papers, and set out stringent guidelines for how benefits and allowances for parliamentarians are to be granted and accounted for.

New Zealand has become one of the Commonwealth’s leaders in deepening accountability and transparency through its proactive release of Cabinet papers to the public.

Back in 2018, the country’s Minister of State Services Chris Hipkins announced that Cabinet papers would be released no later than 30 business days after a Cabinet decision is reached.

In his statement, Hipkins said, “This change is about being an open and accountable government. It will also make it easier for the public to understand government decisions and bolster the accountability of decision makers and advisors.

“Proactive release of official information,” Hipkins added, “promotes good government and transparency and fosters public trust and confidence in government and the public agencies.”

According to Cabinet’s conclusion on the new travel policy, a recommendation was made during discussions for the establishment of an independent committee “to benchmark the travel policy of ministers”.

Independent committees administrating allowances, salaries and benefits for parliamentarians exist throughout the Commonwealth, as do detailed reporting mechanisms on travel allowances and expenditures.

The Bahamas’ annual fiscal budget does not report on travel allowances and travel expenditures by ministry and department, so the public and Parliament are unable to see and track the use of taxpayer funds in this regard.

In Barbados, travel allowances are set out in detail for all ministries and departments in its national budget’s Schedules of Personal Emoluments – a 400-plus page document which also lists the salaries, classifications and head counts in the public service.

Personal emoluments documents are critical accountability and transparency instruments that existed in The Bahamas’ annual budget until 2014 when they were removed by the previous administration, which at the time claimed the removal was done so as to modernize the budget process.

How stripping the Parliament (to whom Cabinet is accountable) and the public of the ability to fully hold the government accountable for public sector expenditure qualifies as modernizing the budget process was never adequately explained, with then opposition leader Dr. Hubert Minnis condemning the move and pledging to return the documents once his party was elected.

To date, that has not happened nor has it been foreshadowed to happen.

Commonwealth countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, for example, have independent bodies which advise on and administrate the salaries, allowances and benefits of parliamentarians.

In its 2019 Official Travel Determination, Australia’s three-member Remuneration Tribunal determined that when making travel arrangements, public office holders are to consider “the necessity of travel and potential alternatives to travel, such as teleconferencing or videoconferencing” and they are also to consider “the total cost of travel, including value for money”.

With respect to spousal travel, the Tribunal determined that a public office holder may be entitled to be accompanied by the office holder’s spouse or de facto partner at the Commonwealth’s expense “for purposes relating to official business”.

“Accompanied travel,” the Tribunal noted, “may occur only if the office holder’s employing authority certifies in writing that it is demonstrably in the interest of the Commonwealth, given the purpose of the travel, for the office holder to be accompanied by the office holder’s spouse or de facto partner.”

According to Canada’s Members’ Allowances and Services Manual, parliamentarians “must take the most direct route when traveling” and “must also select the safest and the most economical and practical means of travel”.

‘Can’t survive on $150 a day’

In defense of Cabinet’s decision to increase travel benefits for ministers, Finance Minister Peter Turnquest said of the Minnis administration’s increase in international travel per diem from $150 to $250 that a minister “could not survive” on $150 per day.

On the average overseas trip, meals are provided for at hotels, conferences, official luncheons, dinner parties and relevant state functions.

But what is ironic about Turnquest’s assertion is that technical officers in the public service — who are now required to accompany ministers on all overseas trips — are only afforded a daily per diem of $100 (which will now also be paid to ministers’ spouses).

How is it that a minister cannot survive on $150 per day for meals and incidentals and is now to be granted $250 per day for overseas travel, but the technical officer accompanying the minister is presumed to be able to survive on a $100 per diem?

Technical officers are the ones who perform the heavy lifting and the critical legwork for official overseas trips.

They are integral in the preparation of briefs that inform ministers on the intricacies of matters on the agenda, they provide essential technical advice to ministers and they prepare the reports for Cabinet necessary for it to effectively evaluate a meeting’s outcomes and their implications for public policy.

In short, technical officers make official government trips functional and worthwhile for the government and by extension the Bahamian people.

Given that Cabinet agreed to the new policy, it was expected that ministers would defend their collective decision when questioned.

Nevertheless, Turnquest’s claim that ministers “could not survive” on $150 a day on an expense-paid trip where many meals are provided at no additional cost likely hit a sour note with many Bahamians, particularly since even at $150, a three-day official trip would provide a minister with more than double what many survive on in a week on minimum wage.

Though he indicated that per diem increases agreed to last year have not yet been implemented, what is relevant is that the increases were agreed to in the first place given the country’s financial position, and given the unrelenting burden of taxation carried by the Bahamian people.

Whenever the additional taxpayer monies begin to be paid to and for ministers and their spouses, it will be in the aftermath of thousands of Bahamians being left homeless and jobless due to Hurricane Dorian, and will be issued against the backdrop of substantial financial and economic losses resulting from the storm.

It will also be during a period where workers are continuing to push for monies owed and for pay raises as they grapple with trying to make ends meet.

Our money is our business, and notwithstanding what any of our ministers might believe, the business of public expenditure and benefits for parliamentarians is business the government ought always proactively and transparently tell.

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