Mon | Jul 24, 2017

Michael Abrahams | Phone bills, Cabinets and political manure

Published:Monday | July 17, 2017 | 7:47 AMMichael Abrahams

In 2014 when Arnaldo Brown, former minister of state in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade in the People’s National Party (PNP) administration, racked up a million-dollar phone bill, there was a huge outcry, and rightly so.

Our economy is in shambles and, as such, we must be more fiscally responsible if we are to ever hoist ourselves out of our abysmal hole of poverty and debt. The situation disturbed me so much that I not only wrote a column (‘An open letter to Arnaldo Brown’), but also a poem (‘Phone Bill Passa Passa’) to express my displeasure.

Naturally, the opposition at the time, the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), was also strident with their criticism, with General Secretary Dr Horace Chang saying that in light of the country's fiscal challenges, the amount being spent on the bills would be viewed negatively. Chang stated, "It may come up elsewhere in Parliament for discussion, but we need a proper explanation and we need the Government to remind its ministers of the challenges the country faces," adding that the level of expenditure was "not in keeping with a Government that is putting the country through a serious austerity programme."

Now, when present Minister of Finance and Public Service Audley Shaw racked up a bill in excess of $8 million, again, there has been a furore, with many Jamaicans, including some Labourites, voicing disapproval. Prime Minister Andrew Holness also expressed concern, stating that the situation was unacceptable. Mr Shaw has since apologised for the astronomical bill, but what is also disappointing are the excuses being offered in his defence from some quarters. Most notable were the comments from Dr Saphire Longmore, a JLP senator, who defended Shaw, suggesting that he was the victim of "reckless business practices" of telecommunications providers.

Mr Shaw has been in politics for decades. This is not his first stint managing the country’s finances, as he did so under the previous governing JLP administration. He has a lot of experience with travelling, and must be aware of the fact that roaming, especially data roaming, can attract exorbitant fees, and that measures such as turning off data at times, and using Wi-Fi, can significantly cut down expenses, especially after the kerfuffle that followed Mr Brown's bill. So, the claim that Mr Shaw was a victim flies as loftily as a concrete kite. If Shaw is a victim, Ishawna is the next Miss Lou.

Foreign Affairs Minister Kamina Johnson Smith admitted to using more Wi-Fi and WhatsApp services to keep her phone bill low, and although she travelled to at least three continents over the corresponding period, her cell phone bill was about $164,000. Also, Shaw has two state ministers to assist him. Johnson Smith has none.

Eight million dollars can do a lot. I drive a decent car, and that money could have paid for my car and given me more than enough change to pay school fees for my youngest child (who will be entering grade one at a preparatory school) annually until he completes GSAT. In a country where children in some schools are forced to use pit latrines, for a government minister to incur these charges, using a phone is scandalous.

And Comrades have no reason to gloat over this either. The tribalistic sycophancy resides on both sides of our political divide. In 2009, then Leader of the Opposition Portia Simpson Miller chided Prime Minister Bruce Golding over the size of his Cabinet, calling it a “breakfront” and demanding that he reduce its size. Shortly after winning the 2012 election, she announced an even bigger Cabinet, with some supporters offering excuses and explanations that were disingenuous and absolutely ridiculous.

If we truly desire a better Jamaica, we must put aside the partisan nonsense that still persists in our country and call a spade a spade. We must hold our public officials accountable, and desist from submitting transgressions of this magnitude to our ignoble national nine-day wonder museum. How can we seriously trust someone to manage the finances of our country when he is so lax in managing his own affairs, especially when their consequences affect our pockets? This is akin to entrusting a man with the responsibility to run a shelter for abused children, and then catching him beating one of them with electrical wire.

How much slackness are we willing to tolerate from our leaders?

Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.