When the leader of a country steps into a fractured national conversation, the society has a right to expect clarity and resolution, not further imbroglio, deeper chaos and confusion. But on Monday May 22, 2023, when Prime Minister Holness called a press conference to address the public consternation and anger engulfing the country in relation to the massive salary increases given to members of the political directorate, the country was plunged into greater confusion and the anger showed no signs of abating.
On Tuesday, May 16, 2023, the Minister of Finance announced salary increases for members of the political directorate which reflected increases of between 200% and 300%, over the three-year period 2022/23 to 2024/25, for positions from Councillors to the Governor General. These increases were being announced at the end of the review of compensation for employees in the public sector.
By contrast, workers in the public sector were granted a 20% increase over the same period. This 20% increase was up from 17.5% which was initially offered. The 2.5% top up was said to be added to ensure that “no one would be worse off”. Although the overall increase to the public sector was 20%, some workers, depending on their rank, saw increases greater than 20%, but none received 200% to 300%.
There were three main features of the public sector review, as articulated by the Government namely to:
- Achieve greater equity in compensation of public sector workers,
- Roll allowances into basic salary and thus increase workers’ pensionable salary,
- Reduce the number of salary scales from over 325 to 16.
Pressure to sign offers
In the latter half of 2022, as the Government’s self-imposed deadline of December 15, 2022, for the payment of new salaries to public sector workers drew near, and some unions had not signed the offers but were still negotiating, to get more than the 20%, the Minister of Finance pleaded for understanding. In his plea he claimed that the offer was the best the government could do, and that workers were to sign and show they were willing to put the country first. He also said that a higher offer would ruin the hard-won economic stability the country had achieved. When the efforts to persuade were seeming to fail, the government resorted to browbeating and veiled threats, telling workers that if they did not sign, by December 2022, the retroactive portions would have to be paid over several fiscal years.
Some workers signed by the stated deadline but the payrolls across the public sector were a maze of confusion with many workers not getting their pay in time for Christmas. The next timeline was March 2023. Government was intent on having all groups of public sector workers sign by early March. At the start of 2023, the largest union, the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) had not signed and so teachers became the target of government’s influence campaign. The JTA first rejected the offer at a regular delegates’ conference, but as pressure mounted it called a special face-to-face conference to hold a vote. The offer was again rejected.
The Minister of Finance, in making a further impassioned plea in parliament, said he had done his best and seemingly at the point of tears, said he could do no more and begged the JTA, and other unions, to sign.
After an increased offer of the “princely sum” of seventy-four Jamaican dollars (JMD74.00) more per day, the JTA delegates held another vote and, on this occasion, they voted to accept the government’s offer, but not after the Association had taken industrial action. In the end the JTA president LaSonja Harrison refused to place her signature on the document. In the meantime, other unions signed agreements and the Minister of Finance took, what appeared to be victory laps, posting pictures of signing events.
Despite most unions signing, there remain major problems with the new system ranging from reports of multiple cases of incorrect payments, anomalies such as supervisors getting less than people they supervise, and some workers being worse off, by taking home less than they used to, before the new system.
Three lessons may be drawn from the context, thus:
- The government made a passionate case that its 20% offer was the best it could make,
- The government pressured workers to sign even though many issues had not been resolved,
- Government delayed announcing the increases to members of the political directorate until all unions had signed.
Public rejection and puerile response
The announcement of the massive increases to members of the political directorate was met with sustained widespread public opprobrium and condemnation. Despite what the government and persons loyal to the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) claimed as opposition to an increase, period, there is compelling evidence that most people were opposed to the level of increase, not an increase.
In the days immediately following the announcement, the Prime Minister and some members of the executive took to social and traditional media and public events to defend the increases. The arguments they made were that it was a bold decision, a justified one, and one that is so game-changing that it will attract people to enter politics.
The public resistance was unrelenting, and it was in response to the public’s sustained criticism of the decision that the Prime Minister called a press conference for the evening of May 22, 2023. In a presentation lasting for over an hour, the Prime Minister again defended the decision, using the same lines of justification, “bold, justified, and game-changing”. But despite the (attempted) justification, the Prime Minister stated that having listened to the concerns of citizens and out of a desire to respond, “symbolically and truthfully”, he “…had instructed the Compensation Review Secretariat to remove the Prime Minister from the increases and revert him to his original salary”. The Prime Minister, shockingly, added that he would not interfere with the salaries of Members of Parliament or Cabinet Ministers.
Missed the Central Concern – Major Confusion
The Prime Minister’s decision, despite his claim that it was in response to the concerns of citizens has missed the mark badly and reflects either a troubling tone-deaf condition, pathological narcissism and too strong a pre-occupation with political gamesmanship, or an inability to construct real policy solutions.
The Prime Minister’s decision to offer to roll back the salary “for the Prime Minister” shows how badly he has misread the public. The concern of the public, which can be confirmed by the overwhelming responses on social and traditional media, was not about the Prime Minister’s salary – alone! It was a concern for both the timing and quantum of the increase to the political directorate – in its entirety.
But the condition of being tone-deaf is not just about the failure to see that for which the public has been clearly asking. The condition is also evident in the fact that after beseeching and then browbeating public sector workers into accepting 20%, the government then went and gave itself up to 300%! One must ask, “how could the government have gotten it so wrong?”
Narcissists tend to see the world as revolving around them and they are easily offended. One of the ways in which narcissists respond to what they perceive as criticism is to make “concessions” which reflect self-pity and power at the same time in the hope that the victims of their actions will both feel guilt and admiration.
In my view, this is precisely what the Prime Minister has done. By addressing his salary only, he reduces the conversation to being about himself and, as some social media fans of his have posted, now that he has done so we should leave him alone. But as many social media users have asserted, this issue is not about the Prime Minister, so a personal response is not what was expected. What was expected was a policy response which ended with a careful and clear roll back of all salaries of the political directorate.
Another characteristic of narcissists is that they should always “win” and they tend to see all interactions as a duel. In this vein, it is arguable that the Prime Minister had Opposition Leader Mark Golding on his mind when he decided that he would reject his salary increase. A few days earlier Mark Golding had announced that he would accept only 20% of his increase and direct the other 80% to charity. What better way to “win” against Mark Golding but to give up the full 100%? The constant attempt at outdoing others is also a feature of insecure people.
But if winning were the objective of the Prime Minister, he would have succeeded in giving up more than what the Opposition Leader gave up, but he would have failed at that which he was expected to do and that is to solve the problem created by the massive and disproportionate increase to the political directorate in general. In this regard, the Prime Minister failed to use his office to advance the good of the society and this failure was because of his preoccupation with his own political fortunes and personal ego. When over-preoccupation with winning takes precedence, we become blind to the larger, nobler cause.
Areas of confusion in need of clarity
The Prime Minister’s announcement has left much confusion. Among the matters needing clarity are the following:
- Whether the instructions to “remove the Prime Minister from the new salary scales” is an order for the indefinite future and applicable to any holder of the office or is confined to the present holder.
- Whether the removal is until the unresolved issues with the public sector workers have been settled.
- Given that the salaries of former Prime Ministers are indexed to the salary of the sitting Prime Minister, the question of whether the order to “remove the Prime Minister from the new scale” will affect the surviving three former Prime Ministers.
- Whether Holness will take the increase for the members of parliament as well as the increase for Ministers, given that he is a portfolio minister.
A statement issued by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) in which the PM sought to address what he calls anomalies indicates his salary will remain at $9m. The statement does not, however, address the question of the implications of his decision for past or future PMs. These issues are not inconsequential and the Prime Minister owes the country clarity. The need for clarity is heightened by the fact that when asked whether the pronouncements by the Prime Minister were applicable to past and future Prime Ministers, Minister of Finance Nigel Clarke merely repeated the Prime Minister’s words. This is unsatisfactory.
Professor Canute Thompson is Professor of Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and Head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning. He is author of two award-winning books and articles, among his collection of eight books and over a dozen journal articles, and the operator of leadershipreimagination.com website.