Alastair Swarbrick has “an important job”, but work isn’t everything
Alastair Swarbrick didn’t have such a great introduction to the Cayman Islands when he arrived here in mid-2010.
The Scotland native took over a 20-person office, probably the most controversial public sector department in Cayman at the time he arrived, had reams of overdue and incomplete government financial statements to wade through and what might fairly be described as an ornery group of elected lawmakers to report to. His first few weeks on Island Mr. Swarbrick, his wife Denise – who was six months pregnant at the time – and then-3-year-old son Logan, were put up in one room at the Marriott Hotel.
And it was July.
“It was hot as hell and we were in one room…which was nice enough, nice room,” he said. “But it made for fun living for a few weeks before we found an apartment and I was straight into work…while my wife was trying to find somewhere else to live.”
Three years makes quite a bit of difference; however, and now the Swarbricks are settled into island-life. Their youngest son, with the rather grandiose name of Murdoch Peter Indiana Jock Swarbrick, has since been born and will turn 3 in September. Logan Swarbrick will celebrate his seventh birthday in August and the family has now moved into a home in South Sound. With a new three-year contract under his belt, the auditor general could be making quite a long stay here.
“The biggest thing about moving anywhere is building friendships, a sort of network…and when you’re first here, it’s difficult to see that sometimes,” Mr. Swarbrick said. “But now, we’ve got some good friends here, and [are] settled in. And whether I’d want to go back to the UK now is another question. [Cayman] opens your eyes to other opportunities, but at the moment, we’re quite happy.”
The nature of audit work generally means you don’t stay in one place forever, and Mr. Swarbrick knows that. However, how long you stay in one place is another matter.
“From a professional perspective if you’re here too long your independence starts to get compromised,” he said. “Auditor general jobs in a lot of places….usually they’re given one full-term appointment; the UK’s is 10 years, Canada is 10 years. I always think there’s a shelf-life to any role like this.”
Family life in Cayman
When it comes to what he enjoys most about the Cayman Islands, Swarbrick said things he and Denise have done with their children are always foremost in his mind.
“The experiences they’ve had, like swimming with dolphins, seeing turtles, with the stingrays, as well as the opportunities they have to live in another culture, another environment, which is very multicultural as well…that really stands out,” he said.
Cayman has seen some momentous events for the Swarbrick family, not only the birth of their second son [who apparently is named Murdoch after the character in the A-Team television series, and whom his older brother calls Indiana], but elder son Logan started school here as well.
“It’s a big thing,” Mr. Swarbrick said. “He often says he likes school, but he’d like it to be one hour long sometimes.
“And he’s very good at Maths.”
Denise Swarbrick, who has a law degree, has been a stay-at-home mom since the family’s arrival in Cayman, but Mr. Swarbrick admits she is every bit the social extrovert that her husband is not and has made meeting people here quite a bit easier.
“Yeah, she’s not shy is she?” Mr. Swarbrick said.
Mrs. Swarbrick is also, for lack of a better term, a stunner.
“The reaction I usually get is ‘how did he get her’? Mr. Swarbrick said, laughing. “Pure luck, I don’t know. I don’t think it was my startling charm or anything like that.”
However, there is a serious side to the Swarbrick family’s day-to-day life. Denise has a medical condition that requires her to go to the US periodically for treatment. The auditor general is not usually keen to talk about it in public, but he admits, it makes things tough sometimes.
“It’s challenging, especially when you’re away from family support networks…and work can be challenging,” he said. “At night…I might leave [the auditor general’s office] thinking ‘what the hell am I doing here, why am I coming to this place to take abuse for just doing my job’? Then you come home and you see the kids and it balances things out. It helps you, there’s a perspective to it all. In reality…it’s an important job, but at the end of the day, it’s just a job and there are things that are ultimately more important in life.”
There have been some substantial accomplishments by the Auditor General’s Office over the past three years.
A process first started by former Auditor General Dan Duguay, that of updating and finalizing financial statements for 40-plus government entities that in some cases were more than five years behind, has largely been completed by the current AG’s office.
Mr. Swarbrick said the financial records being presented to his office, in some cases, still leave much to be desired. However, he believes the message of accountability has finally gotten through to many civil service entities.
“I’ve got over my ‘surely not’ moments. The first year and half, I suppose – it was different than I’m used to,” he said. “Ultimately, my role here is to support the LA and to provide accountability to the citizens of the Cayman Islands in terms of how their money is being used.”
Like every government department over the past three years, the auditor general’s office has sustained round after round of budget cuts and Mr. Swarbrick said they are still missing “one or two” positions. He admits he hasn’t done quite as many “value for money” audits as he would have liked, largely due to the demands of getting government caught up on its annual financial statements.
His office has also raised ongoing concerns about the expertise and leadership regarding financial matters within the civil service.
The Scottish-born auditor said he’s still surprised to a certain extent at how politicised the process of issuing audit reports through the Legislative Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee can become in the Cayman Islands.
“It’s a Westminster-style democracy. The nature of it is fairly rough-and-tumble,” he said. “It’s slightly more politicised here, which makes it a challenge.”
Although, Mr. Swarbrick agrees, the nature of audit work doesn’t necessarily lend itself to everyone liking you all the time.
“We report what we find, without fear nor favour, but it’s about trying to move things forward and improve things at the end of the day,” he said. “It’s very easy to blame people and use [that] as a stick to beat people with. It’s easier to blame than to solve. And if you criticise, people are going to react negatively to that. It’s how they react negatively sometimes that is a bit surprising, in terms of inappropriate reactions.”
Asked if that last comment was in reference to his being called “a hit man” by the former Cayman Islands Premier, Mr. Swarbrick said: “I would find it surprising that someone would say that.”
Another surprise for Mr. Swarbrick has been his introduction to dealing with the press, which as the head of his department, he must do quite often.
The Auditor General believes the best course of action it to try and “strike a balance” when it comes to communicating his office’s sometimes negative messages about the public sector to Cayman’s media.
“I would never say that we’re media darlings,” he said. “We engage with t
he media in an appropriate and effective manner. We have to get our message out….to hold government to account ultimately. One of the most effective ways to do that is to communicate through the media.”
Although it is an important part of his job, Mr. Swarbrick said sitting under the bright lights of press conferences isn’t his favourite thing to do. Part of the problem seems to be that the media, seemingly, has a mind of its own.
“I don’t particularly enjoy it that much,” he said. “You can create a story from a report in a number of different ways, so you try to manage what you think the message should be and it’s not always going to happen as you would expect it to happen.”
Also, Cayman’s close-knit society leads to the auditor general’s public reports being given a bit more scrutiny, he said.
“There’s just more interest…in what the reports of this office do. I’m not saying there isn’t interest in Scotland, but it’s not usually front page of the news.
“The profile here is higher, I think it is a function of the smaller society…it is a bit of the fishbowl; that brings additional pressures.”