Fri | Apr 16, 2021

Editorial | Salaries of public officials no secret

Published:Wednesday | March 3, 2021 | 12:17 AM

Prime Minister Andrew Holness should abandon his fudge and go beyond the request of this newspaper by causing to be made public the salary and performance agreements of government officials who are on fixed-term contracts. The same should happen, too, with respect to lower-level contract employees, including ministerial advisers, if their wages fall outside the public-sector salary scales.

We demand this not because we, and the public, are nosy and have a wish to poke into people’s private business. Rather, it is because of the inherent obligation of governments, given their largely unfettered control of taxpayers’ resources, to transparency. For while there are circumstances when it is necessary to pay top dollar for scarce talent, the public should know what those situations are, and that taxpayers’ resources are not being misallocated because of friendships or other affiliations. Further, with respect to their salaries, public officials, having deliberately entered that domain, ought to be aware that they can make no claims to privacy.

This latest iteration of the tensions between transparency and the bureaucracy’s perennial battle, without compelling reasons, to keep most information secret, arose because of The Sunday Gleaner’s call, via an access to information request, for the contracts of Police Commissioner Antony Anderson and his top lieutenants, as well as those of the tax commissioner, Ainsley Powell, and permanent secretaries. We want to believe that General Anderson, Tax Commissioner Powell or the other people would not object to the release of the information, even if it is a bit discomfiting.

The request, however, was denied on the basis that it would be an unreasonable disclosure of people’s private information. This is an argument allowed under the law. This newspaper understands that there is much about the private affairs of state officials that the public has no automatic right to know, for which The Gleaner did not, and probably would never, ask. However, how, and for what, bureaucrats and other accountable officials are paid cannot be among them. And especially when they do jobs where performance should be constantly under review and is readily measurable.

Prime Minister Holness, on the face of it, agrees with us. He said at a press conference on Sunday that he believes “the public should know”. Which is to say that the salaries and the contracts of General Anderson and other senior cops, from assistant superintendent of police upwards, should be public information. So, too, should be that of Tax Commissioner Powell and those of the permanent secretaries.

This, of course, would not be breaking new ground with respect to transparency. For example, in 2010, when the Golding administration effectively fired Derick Latibeaudiere, the central bank governor it inherited from the previous administration, the fine details of Mr Latibeaudiere’s J$38.36-million salary were laid bare in Parliament and compared to central bankers around the world.

The salary of Mr Latibeaudiere’s successor, Brian Wynter, was, perforce, also published. Prime Minister Holness was the education minister in that administration. Audley Shaw, the current minister of investment and industry, was the finance minister. A decade earlier, while in Opposition, Mr Shaw, as chairman of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, was instrumental in the salaries of swathes of state officials becoming public – the so-called ‘fat cats’ salary scandal.

That is part of the backdrop against which Prime Minister Holness confronts this latest friction between the society’s increased push for openness and the tendencies that resist it. The PM, it seems, is inclined to move in the direction of the former, but appears to be facing internal tugs (whether within himself remains unclear) against unfettered strides in that direction. He had rhetorically asked whether there are legal hurdles to be crossed in releasing the contract information. “... As long as we follow the process, definitely, the information should be shared,” he said.

If there are indeed constraints, they should not have been written into these contracts, and should be avoided in future ones. With respect to whether legal impediments to releasing the information exist, Mr Holness promised to request his attorney general’s response at an “appropriate time”. That time, clearly, is now. A full response is urgent. No fudge.

This issue is also a reminder for Parliament to get on with the review of the Access to Information Act. Mr Holness should see to that, too.