If it were not so serious, it would be laughable that it took the intervention of the PPP/C’s campaign spin doctor, former president Bharrat Jagdeo, to offer the people of Guyana a backhanded apology for the shameless medical benefits package for government ministers in the assurance he offered on Tuesday that the practice would be changed. What this says to the average person with even a minuscule bit of common sense is that were it not for the exposé, the unconscionable spending could have gone on indefinitely.
Mr Jagdeo’s press conference on Tuesday, following his performance at the PPP’s ‘remembrance’ ceremony/campaign launch on Sunday at Babu John had an aura of ‘fixer-upper-ness’ to it. One assumes that as a high-ranking member of the PPP and a former president Mr Jagdeo would have the ear of President Donald Ramotar. Perhaps he is even sought out for advice, which would make sense given his experience of 12 years in office, though he has never been officially named as an advisor to the President. In fact, the former president had said openly that he had no role in the current government and has been frequently away from the country since he demitted office in 2011, on international climate change forays.
But there are several points to note here. One is that Cabinet met since the medical benefits exposé and following that meeting, Cabinet Secretary Dr Roger Luncheon was at pains to explain that the benefits for ministers were part of their employment packages and that the policy had been inherited by the PPP/C when it came to power in 1992, though it was not a written policy. “… It is a condition of service of cabinet members, when appointed, for the state to take care of their health expenses. This condition is not new, the concept, it is applicable to all public officers, all of our reps abroad at diplomatic offices also have this condition of service. The difference, however, is that condition of service and its expenditure of cabinet members is not rules based.” This is what Dr Luncheon explained at his weekly post-Cabinet press conference.
One would assume that Dr Luncheon would not have been talking off the top of his head, and that the issue would have been raised at Cabinet – it has been all over the front pages and trending on social media after all. Yet, the government’s first response was that it was an inherited policy – not that it would be changed; not even that it would be examined in the face of what clearly were excesses.
The issue that must stick in the throat of the average taxpayer is that for 22 years, no one saw anything wrong with this unwritten policy that raised cabinet ministers and diplomats to the status of being entitled, funded on the backs on taxpayers. This is given the fact that the PPP/C campaigned on its ‘lean and clean’ slogan, hammered into the consciousness of the populace how much the PNC had ‘plundered the treasury’ and promised change.
The second point is that Mr Jagdeo said in his statement that he had spoken to Mr Ramotar about the medical benefits issue. But since according to Dr Luncheon it has been in force since Dr Cheddi Jagan was president, one wonders why Mr Jagdeo had not addressed it during his tenure. Why only now? Why only because it has been made public? Is this the way a caring government operates? The question that now arises is, of course, how many past and present ministers took advantage of this unwritten policy and what sums might have been involved. Since the figures that were made public only cover a span of a year, the previous 20 years should make for interesting reading. The sums used would provide an indication of whether the current scandal only recently became what amounts to an abuse of a concession or whether there has been an ongoing gravy train.
A person’s medical condition is, of course, a private matter between that person and his or her doctor. At the same time, if taxpayers’ funds are being used to fix/treat that condition wouldn’t it fall into the public realm? Ordinary citizens with a life-threatening illness for which the treatment is beyond their financial means, have been forced time and again to put aside pride and lay it all out in the open because the people who would donate to saving their lives demand accountability. Why should those elected to serve the people be any more entitled?
What the entire debacle brings to mind is a quote from Uruguayan president Jose Mujica, one of the humblest in the world, who recently stepped down from office: “As soon as politicians start climbing up the ladder, they suddenly become kings. I don’t know how it works, but what I do know is that republics came to the world to make sure that no one is more than anyone else. You [don’t] need a palace, red carpet, [and] a lot of people behind you saying ‘Yes, sir.’ I think all of that is awful.”