ALL AH WE IS ONE: Personal vs Public Interest
AN ARTICLE in the last SUNDAY SUN by Caswell Franklyn has touched upon a central problem of governance in the contemporary Caribbean: the tendency of elected government officials to place their personal interests above the public good.
Specifically, Franklyn has characterised the MPs and Cabinet ministers in the current governing Democratic Labour Party in Barbados as being interested primarily in qualifying for their parliamentary and ministerial pensions.
In making his case, Franklyn points to the fact that the “Senate appointment of lawmakers, who lost their seats in 2013, and their subsequent ministerial appointments to a severely bloated Cabinet will serve to qualify them for pensions”.
In a week where large sections of a statutory corporation were forced into “early retirement”, Franklyn observes that “it is interesting to note that when [qualifying parliamentarians] pass away their widows and children qualify for a survivor’s pension but a similar survivor’s pension was abolished for public officers in 1980”.
Further, in a context where the central planks of Government’s economic policy have included public sector layoffs, the view of Government parliamentarians as focused largely on securing their pensions, cannot be denied treatment as a “good governance” question.
It is certainly a central issue relevant to discussions of “good governance” when in the middle of a severe economic crisis with unprecedented developmental challenges, and when the public is forced to bear the weight of adjustment, elected parliamentarians are seen placing the public good beneath a selfish, material question like the securing of a pension.
What is even more interesting about Franklyn’s reflections is the fact that they coincide with one of the oldest questions raised into the question “who is fit to govern” or the “best type of government”. Students of politics would recognise immediately that Franklyn’s insistence that our lawmakers should place public interest over private gain was precisely the question which motivated the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, when he penned The Republic.
Interestingly, Plato felt that the one way to ensure good governance was to make “government” as materially unattractive as possible to avoid the presence of individualistic opportunists. Plato insisted that such types should be offered a “better life” than they would get in government. In that way, only the “best” types would sacrifice themselves for public service.
Sadly, the Caribbean has not done very well in making public life unattractive. The perks of public office often outweigh what is offered elsewhere. Moreover, our public officials have resisted any attempts at “making public life unattractive”. Note how easily the Integrity in Public Life Bill was buried in Barbados. Thus, genuine sacrifice is no longer a feature of our rulers.
As lamented by Franklyn, “I am yet to hear of one that has sacrificed a lucrative private sector career to give public service”. They are better off, but governance poorer.
• Tennyson Joseph is a political scientist at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus, specialising in regional affairs.