Sunday, January 21, 2018

It’s on the House

Senators will meet tomorrow to debate both the Judges Salaries and Pensions Amendment Bill, and the Retiring Allowances (Legislative Service) Bill.

The significance of these bills was summed best last week by Express Political Editor Ria Taitt: “… all the players—those who make the bills (legislators), those who assent to the law (the President), and those who interpret the law (the judiciary)—will themselves be beneficiaries.”

The two bills carry further significance in that they represent that rare occasion when both the Government and Opposition PNM came together in the House to support their passage.

Immediately, former Law Association president Martin Daly rang the alarm bell, describing the bills as “constitutional impropriety”, warning that they affected the relationship between the Salaries Review Commission (SRC) and judges.

In fact the passage could be a violation, because as Daly says, it affects “the whole balance of the Constitution”, which mandates that only the SRC—not the Parliament—can make recommendations for salaries, terms and conditions for the President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice, judges, senators and Members of Parliament.

In 2003 the SRC began a pension reform exercise because it was agreed that a non-contributory pension arrangement was no longer financially sustainable. What was supposed to be a three-year actuarial exercise dragged on into 2010. The People’s Partnership Government, it is reported, abandoned the project, leaving the SRC hamstrung, with limited budgetary allocations.

Last November, the SRC however recommended a 25 per cent salary increase for all 400 positions under its purview. A House Committee later advised on the increase, but since then the Government has been signalling its intention to table proposals for more broad-based increases.

Last week, commentators took to the Internet, according to Ms Taitt, deeming the bills “legalised corruption” and a “collective rape of the Treasury”.

A caller told me: “Imagine, parliamentarians, including those fired ministers enjoying taxpayers’ money for life! Their benefits, such as housing, gratuity, etc. will be constantly upgraded to match the salary and benefits of the incumbents.

“All of them, Government and PNM, really kicksin’ in Parliament; thousands are living on a $12.50 an hour minimum wage, yet the Chief Justice’s pension is increased from $50,350 to $93,000 a month tax-free. That’s obscene. And it may be very difficult in the Senate to find a member willing to take a stand against these violations.”

Former head of the Public Service, Reggie Dumas, suggested that increased benefits contained in the bills should be based on parliamentary performance.

In human resource management, this means that the Government should have started first with “a value” on the jobs of parliamentarians and judges. The total value in the evaluation exercise, or job grading, could have been linked then to the overall public sector salary structure.

But to achieve its political objective, the Government chose another route, i.e. appear magnanimous, with benefits spread to all—but in reality there appears to be little consideration to the financial burden being imposed on posterity.

Another commentator questioned: “Look, for example, at the state of the economy. Are we are out of the foreign exchange crisis?

“Yet parliamentarians are giving themselves salary increases and benefits for life. Look at the backlog in the judiciary. Recently, it was the threat of legal action against the Appeal Court that got it to deliver a judgment after four years.”

In the latest opinion poll, conducted by Solutions by Simulation for the Express, the judiciary got a mere 19 per cent approval rating, while Parliament, in total, stood at 29 per cent.

Tomorrow, hopefully, the senators will start first with rising public dissatisfaction, as they seek to assess, objectively, the performance of their fellow parliamentarians, who along with judges, do not appear to be enjoying public favour.

Keith Subero, a former Express news editor, has since followed a career in communication and management.