THERE are two elephants in our living room that we are not going to be able to ignore indefinitely, and they’re not going anywhere on their own much as we might hope that they do. They’ve both been around for quite a while, and both are connected to the delivery of our public services. They have their own tempers, and although they may not both display them at the same time they seem to erupt with consistency, timed around our election cycles.
The older of these elephants is the size of the civil service and its cost to the country, and we seem to have been living with this particular animal for such a long time that it has now become something of a pet. For almost as long as anyone can remember, we’ve heard that the civil service is too big, that it is eating up too much of the country’s revenue, and that a way has to be found of containing that cost. We’re told that the cost of the public service now accounts for 51% of the country’s revenue, and that this cost, coupled with our debt service, leaves nothing for investment in the country’s infrastructure.
On the other hand, the Civil Service Association has normally sought to negotiate the best possible increases in wages and benefits for its members. Recently, the Association rejected the former administration’s proposal to cut civil servant’s salaries by 5% without consultation, while claiming that the salary cut had already been incorporated in the 2014 budget. This followed the Association’s rejection of the government’s 4% salary increase proposal for the period March 2010 to April 2013 in counter to the Association’s 9.5% request, the Association opting instead for zero increase for each of those three years. Government however paid civil servants the 4% increase.
By November 2014, the Trade Union Federation had itself signed on to a zero increase in salaries for its members for the period April 2013 to March 2016, having previously accepted the 4% offered to all Trade Unions by the then Dr. Anthony administration for the period 2010-2013. The TUF represents teachers, nurses and police among other public workers, and in accepting the wage freeze indicated that this was being done as part of efforts to help resuscitate the economy.
Here we are then in 2016 with public servants represented by the TUF having accepted 4% over three years for 2010-2013, 0% over the next three years from April 2013 to March 2016, with wage negotiations now due for the period 2016-2019. The new President of the CSA has merely pointed out that the wage agreement with government for the last period is not signed, neither have negotiations commenced for an agreement to cover the period 2016-2019.
Whatever position the CSA may hold with respect to its outstanding and future agreements with government, and whatever position the TUF adopts with respect to its future agreement with government, those wage negotiations are now due. They will however have to take place with a new government in place but with an economy which at best has shown anaemic growth, where large fiscal deficits are still being recorded, and where both the public wage bill and public debt have continued to increase. We can only hope that good sense prevails in these negotiations when they are held because, as the saying goes, when elephants fight the grass gets trampled, and that means you and me.
Which brings us to the second elephant in the living room, and that is the politicization of the Civil Service which has now come to the forefront following this last general election. While the reported renewal of contracts of public officers shortly before the last election might at a stretch be excused as the actions of an over-confident government, the issue of the renewal of the Attorney General’s contract has led to a peculiar result.
As fate would have it, we now have a situation where with the change in government, the Attorney General from a previous administration is having to press charges against the new Prime Minister in whose Cabinet she serves, while the Prime Minister, together with his Minister of Agriculture against whom similar charges have been filed, are going to have to excuse themselves from Cabinet when the Attorney General and the remaining members of his Cabinet sit down to discuss whether or not the two of them should be prosecuted.
Don’t laugh – not yet. Assuming that the Attorney General is herself convinced and manages to convince a majority of the Cabinet that the Prime Minister and his Minister of Agriculture should be prosecuted, what is to happen when these two gentlemen return to the room? Are they supposed to embrace their colleagues who have just agreed to prosecute them and continue with the rest of government’s business in a normal manner? And are their Cabinet colleagues supposed to continue to trust their judgment and continue to have respect for them?
This farce is only arising with the advent of public officers whose appointments are obviously politically made but who rely on their contractual arrangements to remain in office. The issue with the current Attorney General is also clouded by at least one media outlet which suggested that the office is a public office, and that the holder could not be removed. While removal of the current holder of that office may be a contractual issue, the Constitution at Section 87 (2b) does recognize that for some offices, appointment of a person to that office requires the prior approval of the Prime Minister.
As far as we are aware, the appointment of the current Attorney General was by selection, and that is as it should be. The Prime Minister should have the right to select the Attorney General of his choice, either from the elected members of his government, or by engagement as a public officer. By relying on a contract, the current holder of that office is frustrating this process, and she should do the decent thing and resign.
While the current issue with this Attorney General may be unique, we should also be concerned with the other cases of contractual appointments which have obvious political colours, such as those of the ambassadors, and the current government has indicated that it intends to address this issue with new legislation.
A deeper problem for the Civil Service however has been the appointment by contract to established posts within the Service, and the peculiar situation of Permanent Secretaries who are appointed on contract – they of course are not permanent and are not insulated from the politician by the Constitution. These appointments distort the concept of the professional public service, and frustrate the careers of public officers.
For almost as long as Sir John Compton has been the leader of this country, and that includes the period prior to independence in 1979, his complaint was that he did not have the support of the Civil Service. Yet Sir John, while he may have complained, did not seek to handcuff the Service by introducing contractual employment for senior positions in the Service. In fact, there are examples where persons of different political affiliation to Sir John have been appointed to very senior positions in the Civil Service during his leadership of the country.
Funnily, it took the advent of the SLP victory in 1997 for some persons to suggest that it would be impossible for the new government to work with the then holders of office in the Civil Service as those persons had to have been associated with the UWP administration. Today, some of these same persons are now suggesting the reverse and are calling for some new shake-up of the Service so as to rid it of those persons supposedly associated with the SLP. We should ignore all of those calls, and seek to return the Civil Service to the professional status that it once enjoyed.
In light of the foregoing, we are at a loss to understand the calls for the new administration to engage the services of former Minister Dr. Fletcher in view of his performance, particularly as it related to the issues of renewable energy and climate change.
In the first instance, while Dr. Fletcher was an enthusiastic minister and benefitted from the spotlight thrown on the recent COP21 conference and his role as Caricom lead, the objective then was to sensitize the developed world to the plight of small island states faced with the issues of rising sea levels. While it may have been a good show, we are yet to see any aid flowing to us from the developed world as a result of it, and that is what is required, particularly in the area of renewable energy.
Secondly, the ground-work for this conference must have been undertaken by the professionals in Dr. Fletcher’s ministry, and while they were thanked, none was raised to the level of prominence of the minister either during or after the conference. We also wonder what training opportunities if any became available to the staff of that ministry as a result of COP21.
Finally, Dr. Fletcher has been openly political, and launched the SLP manifesto on the market steps. Rather than seek to have one administration demonstrate its openness and employ him, wouldn’t it be far better for Dr. Fletcher to establish his private consulting practice and offer those services to this and any other government who wished to avail themselves of his expertise?
We have enough problems on our hands, and should not be fishing for new ones in the understandable hope of creating unity.
PS: The mailbox devil ate last week’s article!