"Never dress down for the poor. They won't respect you for it. They want their First Lady to look like a million dollars." — Imelda Marcos
Remember Imelda Marcos? She of the 3,000 pairs of shoes fame? She claimed that her husband Ferdinand Marcos, the deceased Philippine president, had billions of dollars in gold prior to entering politics in 1949 which funded their lifestyle.
A lifestyle which, during a 37-year reign, reportedly included million-dollar shopping tours, sending a plane to pick up Australian white sand for a new beach house, purchasing prime New York City properties for tens of millions of dollars, and collecting 'serious' jewellery and works of art by the greats: Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Canaletto.
Marcos responded to criticisms of her extravagance by claiming that it was her "duty" to be "some kind of light, a star to give [the poor] guidelines". "Filipinos," she said, "want beauty. I have to look beautiful so that the poor Filipinos will have a star to look at from their slums."
We're guilty of the same attitude here. We want our politicians to look prosperous and speak eloquently so that they don't embarrass us on the world stage. Of course we want them to drive nice cars, but we feel it shouldn't be done at the expense of other pressing needs. And we have a long list of those. $60 million might be a drop in the bucket to assist the victims of Hurricane Sandy, but the money would have gone further than any one of those cars that we just bought.
What has triggered this brouhaha over the $60 million spent by the current Administration on 16 new high-end vehicles is perhaps the fact that the only time we see our politicians, especially in the rural areas, is just before an election when they are campaigning. Then when we see them, inevitably they're waving at us from their sport utility vehicles, suffering the bad roads and potholes for a brief afternoon while the rest of us have to navigate them for years.
These are difficult times, and when we see our finance minister on television telling a reporter about the inevitability of severe austerity measures to be levied against us, we don't want to see him standing in front of a gleaming BMW government vehicle. If we're taxing imports to the hilt to stimulate local manufacturing and production, then, with all due respect to the superb German car manufacturers, all members of Government should drive one of those cars made in Jamaica by Patrick Marzouca.
Marzouca has been manufacturing the Island Cruiser car since 2000. Up until January 2011 he was still taking orders for export. Priced at US$15,000 each, these brightly coloured, two-door, fibreglass-framed, low maintenance vehicles have a five-speed automatic transmission that can reach a speed of up to 170 km per hour. They get 44 miles to the gallon at speeds of 80 kilometres per hour, convertible top and air conditioning are optional. Anyone of us would be delighted to drive such a homemade creation.
Brand these vehicles with our national colours so we can identify a Government minister from miles away and we may have a meaningful indication from our Government that they're willing to cut corners right alongside us and support local manufacturers to boot.
While we appreciate Prime Minister Simpson Miller's sentiment that "Being a politician does not mean you should not live the life which you have lived before," we stop shy of disbelieving her when she says: "A number of politicians who were professionals before they entered politics were living better than they are living now and were earning much more in terms of salaries." If so, you gotta show us.
We want to know who the successful people that enter politics are. If they were successful in their own businesses, then Jamaica would be in a better state than it is now simply because they would have applied their success principles to turn around the economy of this country. Sadly, though, it appears that the success stories are few and that politics is a career choice that many of our poorly paid farmers, bakers, gas station owners, teachers and plenty of our lawyers make in order to survive in addition to serving the country.
We want to see that comprehensive declaration of our politicians' income, assets and liabilities so that there can be no question about how that luxury boat, or vast real estate portfolio or diamond-clad wife was financed. We want to see the list of politicians who have had jobs, found payrolls, and paid taxes, and we want to know how that politician went from near "tear-batty" pants to bespoke suits and a solid gold watch in the space of one administration. What's the secret of his success?