The issue of public-funded perks is not about whether they are legal but whether in the context of the country’s deeply depressed circumstances it is morally right for individuals funded by the public’s empty purse to insist on extracting the personal financial advantages of public office at the expense of the Treasury.
From the moment the Rowley administration came into office the Prime Minister has been beating the single message of personal sacrifice as he urged the population to live within its means. So dire was the situation that even years before Covid-19 the government has been defaulting on debts owed to businesses for goods and services and on refunds for VAT and other taxes. Against this background, there is something deeply discordant about the efficiency with which the holders of high public office continue to secure their personal interest in acquiring gas guzzling vehicles with the benefit of tax-free status.
We are surprised that Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley would view the public airing of this issue as one designed to lead the public astray. We would have thought that the issue having been made public would spur him to see the insensitivity of raising motor vehicle taxes for the average citizen while cabinet ministers and others continue to enjoy the perk of buying tax-free luxury cars at prices higher than the cost of a middle-income house, in some cases.
This is not a matter of entitlement but one of leading by example. Just because one has the facility to acquire luxury cars with tax-breaks of hundreds of thousands of dollars does not mean the advantage should be exercised. A cabinet unwilling to make personal sacrifices for the larger good will lack the moral authority to ask sacrifices of a public whose back is already against the wall.
It is a blemish on the Kamla Persad-Bissessar cabinet that it over-ruled the very sensible recommendation of the Salaries Review Commission of a cap on the tax-free breaks on cars enjoyed by high-level office-holders. Indeed, more than a blemish it was inherently a conflict of interest for those who stood to benefit from an uncapped ceiling on car taxes to have been allowed to make the decision. That it should be defended by another government in this guava season is self-serving and hypocritical.
To the Prime Minister’s defence that his government is working hard, suggesting that the perks of office are a fair reward for ministerial hard work, we point out the unfairness of the hardships being experienced by thousands of people who are working their fingers to the bone to keep body and soul together. We can but will not cite the many examples of politicians on both sides of the aisle who are benefiting from public office to an extent far beyond their professional capabilities.
At this moment and in the current circumstances, the right response from the government is not defensiveness but sensitivity and empathy. At the very least, the government and opposition should agree to an immediate temporary freeze on tax-free benefits for private purchases of vehicles by public officials as well as introduce a cap on exemptions as recommended by the SRC.