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Newsflash: money does grow on trees

Commands respect: Bob Richards

I have a great deal of respect for Minister of Finance Bob Richards. He doesn’t come across as the type to kiss babies. He doesn’t make cheap attempts to flatter you or try to gain your trust by pointing out family connections.

When being screamed at by 100 angry protesters, even being accused of bribery, he has retained his composure and demonstrated respect. Ordinarily, he is the kind of guy who just tells you what he thinks and then gets on with the job.

So when Richards told us that money doesn’t grow on trees, I took no offence to the remark. After all, a failure to budget accordingly is what got Bermuda into the mess it is in today. Given this, Bermuda really needs a finance minister who could be honest about how bad things are and how hard things need to be for us to avoid a total financial meltdown.

Nevertheless, walking the walk is not the same as talking the talk. So I count myself as one of the many who are extremely disappointed at the $31,000 that was spent to send the sports minister and his permanent secretary to the Rio Olympics.

When the news broke, the first thing that came to mind is that given all that the One Bermuda Alliance has preached about fiscal responsibility, it must have put controls in place to prevent excessive travel costs. Such controls are common practice in the private sector, so surely there must be rules in place for government travel. All it should take is for the Ministry of Finance to stipulate that any travel over a certain sum of money must be approved by someone who fully appreciates the dire need to control costs.

Putting the private-sector best practices aside, let’s assume for a moment that such controls are not in place in government. If that is the case, then shame on the OBA. Congratulations on setting up a website to publicly report travel expenditure and congratulations for greatly reducing the Government’s travel budget. Nevertheless, someone needs their knuckles rapped and a smack upside the back of the head for failing to put sensible controls in place.

Now let’s assume that controls are in place. If they are, then what exactly are those controls? Per the news reports, former sports minister Patricia Gordon-Pamplin was already booked to attend the Olympics. Wouldn’t that therefore rule out the present minister, Sylvan Richards, from attending? Bermuda had ministerial representation, so why did he need to go and how did he get approval for it?

What about the need for a permanent secretary? From what we can tell, the former minister wasn’t going to travel with one, presumably because she thought that one wasn’t needed for this trip. So is there a rule that determines when a permanent secretary needs to travel or not? If so, what changed after the Cabinet shuffle? Why was one not needed before, but one is needed now?

And what about the actual costs? The former minister’s costs for the entire trip were reported at $6,312.09, which sounds entirely reasonable. In contrast, the present minister and permanent secretary paid $10,145 each just for their tickets. Is there not a rule that stipulates how much can be spent on a single flight? What about the entire trip budget of $31,000? If so, who approved the business case justification for this incredibly expensive trip?

Sigh ... If I tried hard enough, I could probably come up with 31,000 better ways to have spent that money. Simply telling us that the tickets were so expensive because they were purchased late is an insult to our collective intelligence. Someone decided that $30,000 was sensible for the entire trip, and someone thought that it was sensible to have a highly paid permanent secretary travelling to Rio for nine days instead of attending to their normal responsibilities in Bermuda.

Even though the Premier’s press statement attempts to explain much, the public are none the wiser about who made these decisions, what the travel rules are and whether or not the required process was followed.

We are $31,000 poorer, and we have no clue about who is being held accountable. The finance minister is the gatekeeper, and we should be given the details of what went wrong. Until that information is disclosed, I will remain dissatisfied with the outcome.

• To reach out to Bryant Trew, e-mail: bryanttrew@mac.com