In the past week, there has been a raging debate in the national domain about exemptions granted to government, opposition and key public officers due to the benefits accrued to them under the Salaries Review Commission.
During a news conference on Saturday, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley refused to address the issue, promising instead to do so during the post-Budget debate.
Juxtapose this to the Prime Minister publicly chastising public servants who have been taking advantage of Government’s decision to allow them to work from home on rotation. From the statistics which the PM revealed, it seems many public servants believe COVID-19 opened the door for them to take paid vacation apart from what they are entitled to, without thinking about the repercussions on the Treasury.
It is good that as the head of the country, Dr Rowley has adopted a hardline approach and has mandated public service managers, whom he said had failed to manage the situation, to now enforce rostering systems so that offenders face salary deductions.
We agree that anyone cheating the public purse must pay the price. There are many citizens who have lost their jobs because of COVID-19 and the economic measures imposed. These citizens cannot now even afford to buy a laptop for their children to do online classes or can’t put food on their tables. Many businesses have been forced to shut their doors while others are considering closure, which could further hurt the economy.
But it is inconceivable that while Dr Rowley was so openly critical of public officers, he failed to address the issue of his Cabinet being part of the societal sacrifice in this time of COVID-19.
Public support for the PM’s reprimand of public officers would have been far greater had he taken the opportunity to tell the country his Government was willing to share the burden and take a pay cut and not utilise the vehicle tax exemptions to which they are entitled, even if only for a specified period.
Imagine how much goodwill the PM could have won by telling the population Government members would forego such benefits because they understand the pain the population is facing and want to share the burden.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her ministers won the admiration of the world by the selfless action they took in slashing their salaries by one fifth for six months.
That is the kind of leadership the country needs right now.
It needs a government that stands with the people and shows it has a clear plan to get us through the crisis. Dr Rowley should not wait to be pushed by the opposition bench, or questioned by the media. Instead, he should take a stand that his supporters and the country would be proud of. Whether the Opposition supports him or not on it is on them.
But there is no better time than the present for Dr Rowley to show he cares about the population.