Published On: Tue, Jan 16th, 2024

Wasteful spending

By Hilbert Haar

If you thought that the government and its elected officials are careful when they are spending your tax-dollars I invite you to think again, because these people are a lot, but not careful.

The General Audit Chamber took a look at how politicians are spending money on travel, accommodation and undisclosed stuff and they also looked at how useful St. Maarten’s membership of Parlatino is.

That politicians have to travel on occasion is not the issue here. The question is: do they have to travel first class, the most expensive option when it comes to buying airline tickets? These travelers also get a daily allowance (a so-called per diem) to cover the costs of hotels and meals.

This all sounds reasonable and can be considered as the cost of doing political business. Nobody wants ministers to starve abroad because the country is too mean to advance them a penny for food.

When you look at the numbers behind these arrangements it becomes interesting. The per diem is 720 guilders or $403 per day. That should cover accommodation and food. I hear some readers wonder: if a hotel is $100 per night, do these people really eat for $300 every day? Indeed, that’s hard to imagine, so it is reasonable to assume that politicians never spend their whole per diem.

In other words: when the trip is over, they still have your money in their pockets.

That money should be returned to the government. Right? I mean, there is no justification for keeping that money. And yet, this is exactly what politicians do.

Let’s take a seven-day trip as a hypothetical example. The total per diem is then (7×720) 5,040 guilders or $2,816. Seven hotel nights at $100 leave our politicians with $2,116 spending money.

How much would they spend on food? It depends of course where you are – New York is more expensive than a village in the French boondocks, but still. Let’s say that another $150 a day covers the nutritional needs. In such a scenario, our politicians still have $1,066 in their pocket.

Do they return that money to the government? According to parliamentarians who were interviewed by the General Audit Chamber, they don’t. Even better: there is no requirement to submit an expense-report showing what you spend the per diem on and there is no requirement to return the money that is left.

I am curious to learn which politicians are going to stand up and say: “Hey, look at this audit report. This is not right. Let’s make it mandatory to give account of our per diem spending and let’s make it mandatory to give the money we did not spend back to where it belongs.”

No sir; that is not going to happen – at least, there will not be a majority of parliamentarians to support these ideas. So you see: if you did what your government does, you would end up in prison.

What about our coveted membership of Parlatino? This club of South-American talking heads has been around for decades and St. Maarten’s politicians have happily joined them, never wondering whether there was any use in doing so.

So our politicians spend hundreds of thousands of guilders on the Parlatino membership fees and on traveling to completely useless meetings in exotic locations but they never bring home any useful results.

During he past thirteen years, parliamentarians have eagerly traveled to the most faraway destinations for Parlatino-meetings.

Parlatino was created sixty years ago, in 1964 as the Latin American and Caribbean parliament. One of its objectives is to harmonize legislation in the member countries. This is rather useless for St. Maarten since it legislative system and parliamentary model differs from those in Latin American countries. In other words; there is nothing to harmonize for St. Maarten.

Then why is our country still a member of a relatively expensive organization that brings us absolutely nothing? Ah, wait, the travel, the visits to exotic locations. The unspent per diem. The unforgettable feeling of going on an important though useless business trip abroad. The stories you can tell when you get back home. The money you put in the bank.

These are the thoughts that enter my mind when I think about our Parlatino-travelers. This makes me wonder: when will somebody get really mad about this wasteful spending? When will somebody stand up and say: enough is enough? I have bad news for you. In our current political system this is not going to happen.

When the Dutch electronics giant Philips was in trouble it got a new CEO called Jan Timmer. Philips even had its own desk at Schiphol airport. One Monday morning Timmer went there and confronted employees who were about to board a plane to wherever. He asked each and everyone for the reason of their trip and then told them to go back to Eindhoven and deal with whatever they thought they were going to do abroad from behind their desk.

St. Maarten does not have anybody called Jan Timmer, but we desperately need somebody like that.