When two weeks ago, a meeting of the Joint Select Committee was cancelled, this state-business disruption occurred because of failure to achieve a quorum requiring the presence of a single parliamentary opposition member. Of the three People’s National Movement (PNM) MPs expected, one was abroad on leave, and the other two, a doctor and a lawyer, could be assumed to have given priority to professional commitments.
This episode forms the immediate background to the demand for such pay increases for MPs as would make it possible for them to work full-time as legislators. As the claims increase on the time and effort of parliamentarians, it is fanciful, and self-defeating, to continue to regard their responsibilities as part-time pursuits.
At least in theory, it is the Parliament which approves the raising and the spending of public funds. It is in this forum that the public expects the executive branch comprising the Cabinet and the machinery of government—the Public Service and other State entities—to remain under the most rigorous scrutiny.
In real-world T&T public life, however, the executive, itself comprising the majority of elected MPs, dominates the Parliament. Moreover, the executive draws upon State resources of expertise and capacity to direct its programmes and enforce its will.
It turns out as well to be expedient for all or most of the ruling party MPs to be made ministers, senior and junior, and to be compensated accordingly. In consequence, non-executive MPs are left in the outdated condition of being relatively underpaid for the time and effort they must devote to their roles as constituency representatives and as legislators. The latter function, extending beyond preparation for and participation in debates, includes sitting on an expanded number of oversight committees appraising performance of State agencies and enterprises.
Parliament, with recommendations from the Salaries Review Commission, decides pay and other benefits for members. The latest exercise, involving a submission by the SRC, has excited grievances by MPs, who see their responsibilities expanding, without prospect of commensurate compensation.
An MPs’ committee, having studied the latest SRC report, proposed increases higher than those put forward by the commission. With its relatively well-paid majority, the Government side voted against the House committee’s proposed increases, thereby reaffirming an unsatisfactory status quo.
It is clearly in the public interest to make it economically viable for legislators to give their all to parliamentary work. Opposition Leader Keith Rowley has taken the extraordinary, maybe desperate, step to appeal for presidential intervention on behalf of needy MPs.
This matter should be seen in a larger frame than that of MPs seeking for themselves. The public must find merit in better equipping MPs to deliver on their expanded responsibilities, and to eliminate excuses for non-performance, and even for graft and corruption.