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“The truth about Ministers’ salaries payout just got murkier” (Fiji Times, 13 October 2015)

13/10/2015

The “truth” about ministers’ salaries payout just got murkier
Professor Wadan Narsey

For several years, many in Fiji have asked why some military government ministers’ salaries were paid through a private accounting firm, Aliz Pacific, for 2010 and 2011. They have asked why this was done and how much was paid. The military government – and now the elected government – had, until recently, said nothing.

The Auditor-General’s Report for 2010, finally released by the Bainimarama Government (but only after the September 2014 elections), revealed that the Prime Minister’s Office was refusing to tell even the Auditor-General what was happening.

The Auditor-General’s job is to inspect Government accounts and ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent in accordance with the law. He is the public officer who, more than anyone else, ensures accountability and transparency in Government.

After the elections the PM’s Office still refused to give the required details to the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament, the PAC. The PAC is a parliamentary committee which, under the Constitution, holds Government officials to account for their spending.

Then suddenly, the Fiji Sun ran a story (on Thursday 8 October 2015) claiming to give the “Truth about the payout” – based on information given them by the PM’s Office. The “truth” just became even harder to find.

The explanation now

The article reported the Acting Permanent Secretary in the PM’s Office giving a number of explanations which I deal with in turn:

Why the Government outsourced some Ministers’ pay?

 The Acting PS (is he really acting?) says that in 2010 and 2011, independent accounting firms had been asked for expressions of interest to provide “payroll services for payment of salaries to government ministers”.

This was deemed necessary, he said, to create efficiency and maintain confidentiality of personal information given the political and administrative climate at the time.

But Government already had a system to pay the salaries of more than 20,000 public servants (including Ministers). So how could it “create efficiency” to use an accounting firm to pay a few ministerial salaries?

What the PS is really saying, in that special language of civil servants called “bureaucratese”, is that “certain unelected ministers had come to office as a result of a coup. The coup leader had promised that no Minister or member of the RFMF would benefit from the coup. However, releasing the data to the Auditor-General would reveal how much everybody was being paid and that maybe these payments were not in keeping with this promise.”

Mind you, this was the same coup leader who had promised transparent and accountable government.

What Aliz Pacific did

The PS tells us that Aliz Pacific provided standard payroll services comprising fortnightly calculations of salaries for all of the Ministers and submit the schedule of calculation to the PM’s Office for approval. When the schedule was approved the approved funds were transferred into a private payroll trust account. …Aliz Pacific was then responsible for making all the deductions and payments” to the respective entities and bank accounts.

All payments of public servant salaries follow a standard pattern.  It is not hard. You divide the annual salary by 26 fortnights, you deduct tax and FNPF payments and you pay the rest to the public servant’s bank account. The Ministry of Finance does this for 20,000 civil servants every two weeks. These calculations are done by a computer programme.

What was it about these ministerial salary payments that the Ministry of Finance officials could not be relied upon to make the payments accurately and efficiently?

How much was Aliz Pacific paid?

The Acting PS reports that Aliz Pacific billed a one-time charge of $3,300 to set up the payroll system in January 2010.  Then it received $850 per month for the next two years.  Altogether Aliz Pacific apparently received $23,700 in fees for 2010 and 2011.

This was for a payroll of less than 20 regime Ministers. Unless they were being paid different amounts each fortnight (for approval by the PM’s Office), it was an Aliz Pacific computer programme (no doubt set up for the initial cost of $3,300) doing most of the work.

So what was the point of spending $23,700 in taxpayers’ funds to do a job the Ministry of Finance has always done (and no doubt does again now)?

How much were the Ministers paid

The PS claimed that the amount of salaries paid to Government Ministers remained the same, until the promulgation of the Parliamentary Remunerations Decree 2014.

The amount of “salaries” might have remained the same – but no one is telling us what these amounts were in the first place, nor whether there were additional payments made, not classifiable as “salary”.

If the amounts were standard Ministerial salaries, why would you hide this information from the Ministry of Finance and the public?

Were there other amounts – special allowances, per diem remuneration, other fees – paid to some Ministers?

Is this why Aliz Pacific needed to do “calculations” for the approval of the PM’s Office?

Nobody knows, because the Government will not tell us.

Provide all the information and let the public judge

The “truth” about these Ministerial salaries is coming out in carefully managed and worded statements from the Prime Minister’s office. Those statements are not notable for what they say. They are notable for what they do not say.

What the public wants to know is exactly how much money the regime’s Ministers received in 2010 and 2011. Why is the PM’s Office being so shy about telling us this? It shows no such reticence in other matters.

Like all good corporate citizens who practise transparency, a company under audit will hand over to its auditors all of its original source documents. The auditors will check them so as to report that the company’s accounts are truthful. Imagine if the company told the auditors “we cannot reveal what payments we made because of the political and administrative climate at the time.”

Remember, the government has given the Auditor-General no information.

So it now falls on the Public Accounts Committee to demand the source documents so that the Auditor-General can decide whether the payments were in accordance with the law. That would be transparent and accountable government, wouldn’t it?

What PAC needs to do

The Public Accounts Committee should ask for, as a minimum:

  • all the schedules of payments to Ministers submitted by Aliz Pacific for approval by the PM’s Office – not just for salaries, but for all allowances, benefits and other payments
  • any changes to those schedules made by the PM’s Office before they were approved
  • all the payments made by Aliz Pacific to the Ministers concerned
  • the original bank statements of the Aliz Pacific trust account, showing the outgoing payments, and identifying which of those payments went to which Minister
  • independent verification from FRCA on the tax deductions supposedly made in 2010 and 2011 (FRCA can do this without releasing any confidential details about individuals)
  • independent verification from FNPF for all payments into the ministers’ accounts, in the same way as FRCA needs to verify.

Because there has been no transparency about Ministerial incomes for the whole period of the military regime, the public does not know if, for example, Ministers received other payments from the Government, which did not go through the Aliz Pacific account.

Therefore, every Minister who served in the military government – at any time between 2006 and 2014 – should submit a sworn statement of what they actually received from the Government.

This money came from our taxes.

These ministers were supposed to be working for us.

We are told that this was a transparent and accountable government who did took power to eliminate corruption that the previous Qarase Government was allegedly engaged in.

Perhaps it is time that the Bainimarama government should prove that it is transparent, and not just talk about transparency.

Transparency and accountability?

The words “transparent and accountable” fell from the lips of every military government Minister so often between 2006 and 2014 that there must have been a special key on their speechwriters’ computer keyboards.

But what is the “truth?

First, the Bainimarama Government did not tell anyone how much pay its Ministers were receiving.

It did not use its own government system to process Ministers’ pay. Instead it paid Aliz Pacific more than $20,000 over two years to keep the information away from prying eyes – including the Auditor-General’s.

Ministerial salaries and allowances should be available to the public all the time. After all, if Ministers are earning them in accordance with the law, what is there to hide?

Then, in a farcical series of steps on Wednesday last week, the Prime Minister’s office delivered some information to PAC chairman Biman Prasad’s office.

They learned he was overseas and insisted that only he could receive it, so they took it away.

Then they came back and delivered it anyway.

Then they came back, a third time, to get it back.

Were they worried that some undesirable information might leak out to the media?

Then, shock, horror, by the next morning it was on the front page of the Government’s favourite newspaper outlet, a veritable “government gazette” aka the Fiji Sun, under the headline “Truth about payout”.

This headline would be funny if it was not so disgraceful- for taxpayers.

The truth, it seems, is getting murkier by the day, with a bit of a nudge and wink, from one newspaper.

 

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