Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Govt and next govt to themselves?

The opposition last Friday joined with the government in passing the Judges’ Salaries and Pensions (Amendment) Bill, 2013 and the Retiring Allowances (Legislative Service) (Amendment) Bill, 2014. The collaboration was for me not only momentous, but also staggering in its bold exploitation of opportunism and power.

The Government and the Opposition had teamed up to aggrandise themselves for life! And, in the process, they had gone over the heads of the Salary Review Commission with cynical impunity! After all, they are the lawmaking body of the land and no foot-dragging, dinosaurian, crummy little commission was about to dilute their power and authority.

Both bills seek to improve salaries, pensions, and retiring allowances for judges and parliamentarians to such an extent as to keep them not merely financially comfortable but rich for the rest of their lives, during both active service and retirement. More specifically, they seek to index the pensions of judges to not only their tax-free salaries but also their tax-free allowances; to include allowances in the pensions of parliamentarians and to index the inflated pensions to MPs’ current taxed salaries and allowances, but to provide a graduated percentage of these salaries based on years of experience; and to provide a termination benefit for MPs to the tune of half of their annual salaries in addition to their termly gratuities.

People, including my fellow columnists, were alarmed. Michael Harris had some choice words for the act and the collaboration: “most blatant and boldfaced act of self-enrichment ever witnessed in our political history’’, “political grand larceny’’, “thieves in the night’’.

The strident public outcry has caused the Government to back-back on the bills. The PM issued a statement to the effect, having decided “not to proceed with approving the bills until all perspectives and opinions are ventilated’’. Further, she is willing to have a Senate Select Committee review the matter and to have her Government bound by its recommendations.

I too was alarmed by the collaboration. I thought I had heard the Opposition say after Section 34 that they would never again co-operate with the Government, given the egregious degree of their deception of the Opposition and members of the judiciary. I knew that Dr Rowley had said in the past that the emoluments of judges and parliamentarians badly needed to be increased, but I did not know that he was still collaborating legislatively with the Government.

Indeed, the Prime Minister exclaimed in her statement putting a hold on the bills: “It is rare that the Government and the Opposition ever agree on anything.’’

If she is right, why would the Opposition collaborate with the Government in this case? Because of the prospect of permanent personal financial security?

But I was so incredulous at the development—at what seemed to be the naked greed of our representatives and the sheer abuse of parliamentary power—that I decided to do a little research. I wanted to find out if the Opposition had not been collaborating legislatively with the government all along but had decided to change their mind in the case of these bills from which they stood to benefit handsomely.

I checked data on the voting behaviour of the Opposition in respect of bills introduced in the four sessions of this Parliament since 2010. A surprise was waiting for me. Here’s what I found — In the first session of Parliament—June 2010 to June 2011—there were 43 bills. Fourteen lapsed, one was withdrawn, the Opposition supported 27, and they rejected one.

In the second session—June 2011 to June 2012—there were 27 bills. Nine lapsed, one was withdrawn, the Opposition abstained re one, they supported 13, and rejected four.

In the third session—June 2012 to June 2013— there were 26 bills. Nine lapsed, the Opposition abstained re one, they supported 12, and rejected four.

In the fourth and current session—July 2013 to June 2014— there have been 28 bills. Ten are at the reading stage, three at the committee stage, the Opposition have supported seven, and they have rejected seven.

In summary, then, there have been 124 bills in the current Parliament. Thirty-two have lapsed, two have been withdrawn, the Opposition have abstained from voting on two, they have supported 59, they have rejected 16, ten are at the reading stage, and three are at the committee stage.

It is clear then that, in collaborating with the Government on the money bills for judges and parliamentarians, the Opposition was continuing a practice in this Parliament of collaborating with the Government, contrary to Ms Persad-Bissessar’s claim of rare agreement between the two bodies. Was she distorting the truth, you think?