Hon Hubert Hughes returns free government car to the Chief Minister's Permanent Secretary. I was pleased when I heard the news on the radio this morning. Hubert Hughes took a big hit in his popularity in Blowing Point when he accepted the free car given to him by government last year. He gave it back yesterday. He has gone some way to making amends by this gesture.
I don't know if he realises quite how he was used by government. He was turned into both a guinea pig and a scapegoat at the same time. He came out of the exercise looking very bad. I see his return of the car as an attempt to recover some of the political capital that he lost.
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When this announcement was made, there was outrage expressed in the community. It is true that the government revenue was doing well at the time, and the public purse could afford the generosity. But, the average Anguillian can smell a rotten fish when it is put down on the table in front of them. Now that the economy is in the pits with the world-wide recession, the sullenness when you raise the topic with the average Anguillian is almost palpable.
So, during the year following the announcement that the ministers were taking home their cars at the end of the term came the experiment. It was announced last year that the government so appreciated the work of the two members of the opposition that they were to be given brand new cars for their private use. The explanation was that Hubert Hughes and Edison Baird, as Members of the House of Assembly, drove up and down the country giving lifts to old ladies and doing other community work, and deserved a government vehicle to do it in.
At a ceremony attended by all the members of the Anguillian press, Mr Hughes accepted the keys to a vehicle. It was clearly stated that government had decided to give Mr Hughes the vehicle. He accepted the keys with words of thanks and appreciation. The speeches made in handing over the car and in accepting the car were broadcast over and over again on the radio. The language used at the hand over of the keys appeared to say that the ownership of the car was being transferred to Mr Hughes. That was the only interpretation that one could give to the language of the hand over.
Mr Baird announced that he would not be accepting the offer of a free vehicle. That shows us how politically astute Mr Baird is. It was a brilliant stroke of political genius. Just as the government's attempt to discredit the opposition might be counted a brilliant stroke of political genius.
I also assumed that Mr Hughes had taken title to the vehicle. I published a post on this blog condemning the gift of ownership of a vehicle, or money's worth, to the members of the opposition.
Even Mr Hughes' son Haydn Hughes evidently assumed that his father was taking title to the vehicle. He wrote and published articles in mitigation of his father's decision to accept the gift. He wrote that Mr Baird was not doing anything different. He wrote that Mr Baird's acceptance of the money was just as bad as accepting the car.
Government members took up the refrain that Mr Baird was accepting in cash the value of a vehicle in lieu of taking possession and ownership of an actual vehicle. Mr Baird got very upset at that suggestion. What he was doing, he pointed out, was to accept the small travel allowance that had long ago been passed into law as the entitlement of every member of the House of Assembly. He was not, as everyone assumed, taking the monetary value of a car similar to the one that Mr Hughes had taken possession of.
There was public outrage expressed in radio talk shows and letters to the editors. Taxi drivers sitting in conference at the airport and at the sea port spluttered their indignation. Underpaid nurses, teachers, and police officers were observed lifting their eyebrows in disbelief and sucking their teeth loudly. Emails flew about the country from one end to the other. All condemned the decision of Mr Hughes to take ownership of a government vehicle. It was obvious to even the most jaded and cynical Anguillian that it can never be correct for public materials and money to be donated by politicians to themselves. Not, at any rate, without the sanction of a law debated and passed in the House of Assembly.
Within days of the hand over the story changed. Both the government and Mr Hughes announced that the intention had never been to “give” Mr Hughes a vehicle. The intention all along had only been to give Mr Hughes the “use” of a government vehicle. If that had been the plan all along, why, one wonders, was it not announced as such.
My conclusion is that it was partly an attempt to tar Mr Hughes with the same brush as the government ministers. If government Ministers were to suffer politically from the announcement that they were going to take home their vehicles permanently at the end of their term in 2010, then the opposition would not be allowed to take the high moral road. They would be destroyed by giving them each a free vehicle.
It was also, I assume, partly an attempt to see just how furious the public would get at this act of generosity towards Mr Hughes. Would they accept that the gift was the right of Mr Hughes as a member of the Assembly? If so, that would suggest that there was not much opposition to the idea that Ministers should be able to take home their cars. If the gift was met by significant outrage, then the idea could be quietly scrapped, leaving Mr Hughes the only member of the House of Assembly to have received ownership of a free government vehicle.
Only Mr Baird appears to have seen through the stratagem, and avoided the trap set for the members of the opposition.
By giving the vehicle back to government, Mr Hughes has attempted to recover some of the reputation and integrity that he lost when he was made the scapegoat for this proposal by government ministers to give themselves a government car. His intention was clear from the public way he chose to return the keys. He invited the same press to be present when he handed the keys to the Permanent Secretary. He made sure his action was widely broadcast.
Only time will tell if he has been successful in this tactic.