EDITORIAL – MLAs Harris and Bush go to London

“As the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once stated, the government has no money; it’s the people’s money. It is therefore imperative that we spend the public’s money as prudently as possible and ensure that the people of the Cayman Islands are receiving the greatest value for their money.”

– Austin Harris, Cayman Islands MLA

Well said, Mr. Harris. Well done, though? Well … let the readers decide.

In return for their money, this is what the people of the Cayman Islands recently received: A four-day, taxpayer-funded trip to London for Mr. Harris and fellow MLA Bernie Bush to learn, of all things, how the Public Accounts Committee might “strengthen its role to ensure government obtains best value for money in all expenditures.”

Presumably “all expenditures” includes travel and accommodations for two to attend the International Centre for Parliamentary Studies 6th Annual Public Accounts Committees Symposium – featuring delegates from such far-off locales as Kenya, Ghana, the Solomon Islands, Australia, Tonga (and the Cayman Islands) – under the general theme of “Ensuring Government Expenditures are Effective, Economical and Efficient.”

During their trip, we are informed via press release, Messrs. Harris and Bush met with leading practitioners in the public accounts field in order to “better understand how PAC members can work with stakeholders to make certain that public spending and delivery of services is both highly effective and efficient.”

In the same statement, Mr. Harris was quoted as saying, “When the government pays for something, it actually means that the public is paying for it, and therefore we have a duty to ensure accountability.”

Truer words may never have been uttered on either side of the Atlantic.

Yet, we wonder what on earth could have been said in London about stakeholders or public accounts committees that Messrs. Harris and Bush could not have learned by knocking on doors in their constituencies to speak to stakeholders here, or discussing with former PAC chair (and current House Speaker) McKeeva Bush in West Bay, or even going “all the way out” to North Side to visit current PAC chair Ezzard Miller. The whole circuit could be completed on foot, by car or, if the seas cooperate, by catboat.

No jumbo jets would need to be involved. (Then again, neither would frequent flyer miles, hotel rooms or obligatory cocktail receptions.)

And although we have no evidence of this, at least in the press release, if the presentations at the symposium really did contain hitherto unknown but absolutely essential information, then surely it could be obtained by an exchange of emails, Skype video conference or an old-fashioned phone call.

It’s not that we are against Cayman’s elected officials traveling overseas, or even traveling comfortably, it’s simply that such travel – like all government expenditures – should be made only when necessary. We recall when taking a trip to London was a milestone event in a person’s life; lately, we observe that our government officials appear to give no further thought to intercontinental travel than they would to heading out to Stingray City.

As Mr. Harris quoted from Prime Minister Thatcher, “the government has no money.” That goes double for Cayman: yes, in the sense that government’s money is taxpayer money, but also in the literal sense that – after accounting for debt servicing, long-term obligations to pay for public pensions and healthcare, and non-discretionary spending on civil servants’ salaries – our government has no money.

When it comes to things such as capital projects, social assistance and facilities to serve vulnerable populations (the elderly, mentally ill, disabled, incarcerated, etc.), officials routinely cite the lack of funding for their lack of action.

But how about for positional perks … such as official travel?