Lux­ury should not be a perk of of­fice

Cape Times - - INSIGHT - Scott Wal­lace

WHY DO South African tax­pay­ers buy ex­pen­sive homes for ev­ery cab­i­net min­is­ter and deputy min­is­ter?

The Cape Times has re­ported that the gov­ern­ment paid R183 mil­lion for 34 new VIP homes in ex­clu­sive neigh­bour­hoods of Tsh­wane and Cape Town. A to­tal of 66 cab­i­net mem­bers are eli­gi­ble for this perk.

Seven more fine houses near Cape Town were bought for R46m, at prices in­ex­pli­ca­bly 26 per­cent above mar­ket value.

A new guest­house for the deputy pres­i­dent cost R93m.

Why are min­is­ters and their deputies en­ti­tled to bring spouses and chil­dren on of­fi­cial trips at gov­ern­ment ex­pense, and to be paid for purely per­sonal air travel – up to 30 trips a year, spouse in­cluded – in busi­ness class no less?

Even after they leave gov­ern­ment ser­vice, ac­cord­ing to the Min­is­te­rial Hand­book, min­is­ters are en­ti­tled to 48 busi­ness-class do­mes­tic flights ev­ery year. Their spouses are en­ti­tled to 24 trips, 18 for the spouses of deputy min­is­ters. Min­is­ters can be pro­vided two of­fi­cial cars, plus an al­lowance for the pur­chase of a pri­vate car hav­ing no con­nec­tion with their of­fi­cial du­ties. They are told to stay in ho­tels that “suit the sta­tus” of a min­is­ter.

The coun­try with the world’s largest econ­omy, the US, pro­vides none of this. Its gov­ern­ment’s high­est of­fi­cials, the cab­i­net “sec­re­taries” who run the ma­jor agen­cies (there are only 15 of them) must find their own hous­ing in Wash­ing­ton DC, and pay for it out of their salary.

Ex­penses are paid only for of­fi­cial busi­ness – not for per­sonal travel, not for spouses or chil­dren, and not after de­par­ture from gov­ern­ment ser­vice. And there is no en­ti­tle­ment to first-class any­thing – whether air travel, ho­tels or hous­ing. If you are spend­ing the pub­lic’s money, you are ex­pected to spend as lit­tle as pos­si­ble.

I knew a very fine gen­tle­man who served US pres­i­dents in the high­est of po­si­tions – as Sec­re­tary of Agri­cul­ture, as Sec­re­tary of Com­merce, and as vice pres­i­dent of the US.

Through 14 years of ser­vice, his res­i­dence was a mod­est rental flat in Wash­ing­ton.

Even as vice pres­i­dent, he had no gov­ern­ment car or se­cu­rity de­tail; he walked the 3.2km to his of­fice at the White House, through the park, ac­com­pa­nied by his dog, Bru­tus.

That gen­tle­man was my grand­fa­ther, who served un­der pres­i­dents Roo­sevelt and Tru­man. In the flat next to my grand­par­ents lived Mamie and (fu­ture US Pres­i­dent) Dwight Eisen­hower. (This was while Eisen­hower was Supreme Com­man­der of Al­lied Forces in Europe, so he wasn’t home much – though my fa­ther, at age 13, scared the hell out of Mrs Eisen­hower one day when she came over for tea, by leav­ing his snake col­lec­tion in the bath­tub when she went to wash up).

The same apart­ment build­ing was home to two other US vice pres­i­dents be­fore and after my grand­fa­ther: those who served un­der Her­bert Hoover (Charles Cur­tis) and Richard Nixon (Spiro Agnew), as well as the Chief Jus­tice of the US Supreme Court, Earl War­ren, who had previously been Gover­nor of Cal­i­for­nia and a can­di­date for US vice pres­i­dent.

The man who suc­ceeded my grand­fa­ther as vice pres­i­dent, Harry Tru­man, had lived for years in a mod­est rented flat nearby un­til he moved into the White House upon Roo­sevelt’s death.

The US did fi­nally buy an of­fi­cial res­i­dence for the vice pres­i­dent, in 1974, for pur­poses of se­cu­rity – not sta­tus. But all other top of­fi­cials in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment still must fend for them­selves. And most live in very or­di­nary homes in or­di­nary neigh­bour­hoods. For the vast ma­jor­ity of se­nior pub­lic of­fi­cials, pub­lic ser­vice means a lower stan­dard of liv­ing than they ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore they en­tered gov­ern­ment.

Sac­ri­fice is ex­pected, im­prov­ing your own life­style is not.

This is not to say that Amer­i­can pol­i­tics to­day is not awash in big money. Our po­lit­i­cal par­ties and politi­cians are mas­sively de­pen­dent on con­tri­bu­tions from cor­po­ra­tions and wealthy elites. But the money flows not to in­di­vid­ual politi­cians (that’s a crime), but to their elec­tion cam­paigns and to the par­ties – and the law places strict lim­its on the amounts of such con­tri­bu­tions, and man­dates pub­lic dis­clo­sure of con­trib­u­tors’ iden­ti­ties.

(The laws reg­u­late only di­rect con­tri­bu­tions to politi­cians and par­ties. Un­for­tu­nately, our Supreme Court is dom­i­nated by Repub­li­can ap­pointees friendly to cor­po­ra­tions.

And it has re­cently ruled that cor­po­ra­tions can spend un­lim­ited amounts of money to in­flu­ence US elec­tions, as long as they do it in­de­pen­dently, rather than to or through a can­di­date or party.) Though the US still has much work to do to re­duce the in­flu­ence of money in pol­i­tics, the sys­tem of strict reg­u­la­tion and dis­clo­sure has made a huge dif­fer­ence. It em­pow­ers the me­dia and non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tions to un­earth scan­dals where huge con­tri­bu­tions are traded for pref­er­en­tial treat­ment on mat­ters of pol­icy or gov­ern­ment spend­ing. Each fed­eral agency has its own “in­spec­tor gen­eral”, in­su­lated from po­lit­i­cal pres­sures by a fixed 15-year term, whose job is to make sure that no of­fi­cial uses their po­si­tion to en­rich or ben­e­fit them­selves, family, friends or as­so­ci­ates. Our fed­eral pris­ons have housed many politi­cians and of­fi­cials who ran afoul of these laws.

I don’t mean to sug­gest that Amer­i­can pub­lic of­fi­cials do not find ways to ben­e­fit fi­nan­cially from their gov­ern­ment ser­vice. Many have. Some go to work for cor­po­ra­tions, trad­ing on their po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions and knowl­edge of gov­ern­ment. Some par­lay their ex­pe­ri­ence into nice in­comes in law, academia or the me­dia. Some write tell-all mem­oirs. But the ben­e­fits can only be reaped after – not dur­ing – gov­ern­ment ser­vice.

Dur­ing my six years as an Amer­i­can liv­ing in the land of Man­dela, it has pained me to see the in­creas­ing cyn­i­cism about gov­ern­ment’s stew­ard­ship of tax­payer re­sources.

When peo­ple worry that money meant to ben­e­fit the na­tion and the poor will be di­verted in­stead to line the pock­ets of the rich and pow­er­ful, democ­racy is dam­aged. Trust can be hard to re­store.

I would sug­gest that a good place to start restor­ing peo­ple’s faith in gov­ern­ment is to rein in the perks of pub­lic of­fice.

Tax­pay­ers in any coun­try need to be con­fi­dent that their pub­lic ser­vants are solely in­ter­ested in serv­ing the pub­lic in­ter­est, rather than im­prov­ing their own in­come and ma­te­rial com­forts.

To those who might worry that it is un­fair to re­duce the emol­u­ments of of­fice for sit­ting of­fi­cials, I might point to an­other US ex­am­ple.

Once, when Amer­i­cans grew an­gry that pub­lic of­fi­cials were get­ting paid far more than or­di­nary cit­i­zens, the US Congress voted to sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce salaries for se­nior of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the vice pres­i­dent, and for Mem­bers of Congress them­selves. This was in 1874, and it helped es­tab­lish the prin­ci­ple that pub­lic ser­vice should not pay bet­ter than pri­vate en­ter­prise.

South Africa may be headed in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

A gov­ern­ment spokesman re­cently in­sisted that it is “nec­es­sary” to pro­vide min­is­ters with res­i­dences that meet a “pres­tige stan­dard”.

And now mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil­lors are seek­ing the same hous­ing and other ben­e­fits as their coun­ter­parts at the na­tional level.

The ques­tion is, do these perks help at­tract the right kind of peo­ple, or the wrong kind of peo­ple? Will the best and the bright­est refuse pub­lic ser­vice if they don’t get free “pres­tige” hous­ing and a life­time of free busi­ness-class air travel for them and their fam­i­lies – all at the ex­pense of the tax­pay­ers they must swear to serve? Is this a nec­es­sary in­vest­ment? Can the gov­ern­ment think of noth­ing bet­ter to do with the bil­lions of rands in­volved?

I’m proud of my grand­fa­ther’s hu­mil­ity and sin­gle-minded ded­i­ca­tion to the com­mon good. He would be happy to tell to­day’s politi­cians in Amer­ica and else­where: if you want to get rich, go into busi­ness; if you want to serve the pub­lic, tighten your belt and get to work!

Wal­lace is an at­tor­ney and cochair of the Wal­lace Global Fund, a US-based char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion, and grand­son of US Vice Pres­i­dent Henry A Wal­lace.

Why are ex­pen­sive houses bought for South Africa’s min­is­ters and their deputies? asks the writer.

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