Mahase’s costly Papua New Guinea travel

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Mohalenyane Phakela

GOVERNMENT recently paid M145 700 to enable Acting Chief Justice ‘Maseforo Mahase to fly business class to the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges’ Association (CMJA) Conference in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea from 8 to 12 September 2019.

Justice and Correctional Service Minister Mokhele Moletsane this week defended the government spending, saying Justice Mahase “is even higher than the deputy prime minister in the government hierarchy so she deserves to fly first class”.

This is despite Finance minister Moeketsi Majoro’s orders that ministers and other senior government officials travel economy class as part of measures to contain ballooning government spending.  An economy class return ticket would have cost about M22 000. But Minister Moletsane said there was no way the acting chief justice could have flown economy

The M145 700 amount only covers air fares and this means that the government will spend much more in travel allowances and per diems for the top judge’s stay in Papua New Guinea.

The amount is reflected in a payment voucher the government made out to a local travelling agency, Legend Travel and Tours.

According to the payment voucher dated 5 August 2019, “M145 000 is payment in respect of a business class ticket for Chief Justice Maseforo Mahase while attending CMJA Conference on 8 to 12 September 2019”.

The CMJA conference aims to “promote a better understanding of judicial issues among judicial officers of all ranks and from all the Commonwealth member states”.

It is not clear whether or not Justice Mahase will be accompanied by any other judges, magistrates or officials. If she is accompanied by fellow judges and magistrates, the government would have to fork out even more for air tickets and subsistence allowances.

Justice Mahase’s expensive ticket means Finance Minister Majoro’s attempts to rein in government expenditure are far from seeing light of day. Ministers and principal secretaries are still lavishing themselves with business class travel despite Dr Majoro’s exhortations to the contrary. The cash strapped government is now struggling to pay suppliers many of whom complain their operations are now on the edge. With the government being a major player in the economy its failure to pay suppliers has created a huge negative domino effect across the small private sector which relies on the state for business.

In his two budget speeches since he took over at finance, Dr Majoro exhorted on ministers and government officials to cut unnecessary travel and use economy class to save money.

But Minister Moletsane said instead of business class, Justice Mahase instead “deserved to fly first class”.

“When the austerity measures were introduced in 2018, heads of the various arms of government were not included in the proposed cuts. Those excluded from the spending cuts include His Majesty King Letsie III, Prime Minister Thabane, Deputy Prime Minister Monyane Moleleki, the Senate President and the Chief Justice.

“It was agreed that only ministers and ordinary judges would no longer fly first or business class and they would now travel in the economy class. The chief justice is even higher than the deputy prime minister in the government hierarchy so she deserves to fly first class,” Mr Moletsane said this week.

But while the government can afford to pay such a hefty fee on the chief justice’s plane ticket for a single trip, recent reports said magistrates’ courts were forced to share paltry amounts as low as M500 to fund their operations.

So bad is the situation that for instance, the country’s 12 courts in the Mafeteng district were forced to share a measly M539 to cover their operating costs for three months after the presentation of the 2019/20 budget in March 2019. This means that on average each court got M44, 91.

The shocking development was revealed by the Chief Magistrate for the Northern Region, Makampong Mokhoro. Ms Mokhoro also said that the judiciary urgently needed an additional M14 million to complement the M99 547 000 which it was allocated for the 2019/20 financial year if it is to effectively deliver justice.

She said the additional budget was especially needed in the subordinate courts which have to operate on a shoe-string budget of just M539 per quarter.

Ms Mokhoro said it would be impossible for the subordinate courts to operate on a budget of M539 to cover the operational costs of as much as 12 courts in one district per quarter.

“The situation is very bad to a point that the subordinate courts will not be able to function due to lack of funds needed for stationery such as court registers and subpoenas which have to be printed at the Government Printing in order to bear the coat of arms and for each subpoena to have a specific unique number. For instance, Quthing has seven local courts which need to share M591.50 while Mafeteng has been allocated M539 to share amongst its 12 courts to cover their operating costs for three months.

“There is a mobile court which has to move around the country to hear but it is also expected to function with a budget of M36 967 for the entire year,” Ms Mokhoro said in May.

The huge government outlay on top judges’ foreign travels also comes against the background of magistrates, police, intelligence officers, teachers and other civil servants’ demands for higher salaries and improved working conditions. Magistrates have already taken the unprecedented step of striking twice in less than a year to force the government to address their demands. They feel the government is unfairly discriminating against them by prioritising the welfare of judges.

 

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