Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Let them speak

 The recent statement by Senator Camille Robinson-Regis in the Senate during the debate on the report of the Salaries Commission and the Judges Salaries and Pensions (Amendment) Bill that public comments on the issue had “resulted in some rats coming out of their holes was to be deeply regretted. That statement may, however, lend support to the fact that one of the major infirmities of politics is that it is the only profession that needs no training or qualification. Moreover, the statement would appear to demonstrate the unbridled impetuosity of some politicians.

Any politician who claims that “people are hypocrites and/or rats who want to ill-treat parliamentarians” would clearly be reflecting the puerility and imperiousness of politicians. It is not clear, however, why people seek election or accept appointments to Parliament or other offices if the remunerative package is inadequate or not commensurate with the responsibility attached to the office/s. Further why do people spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in election campaigns to entertain and befuddle the electorate to vote for them if the terms and conditions of the office are unattractive. Ironically people do not beg politicians to vote for them; it is the politicians who do so. Unlike a politician, a good doctor, lawyer and other professionals do not go out there begging people to patronise them. On the contrary it is the people who seek them out because of their expertise and integrity.

What then, one may ask, are the factors that propel people to seek political office? Is it self-interest, salary, status, perquisites, altruism, philanthropy or the amassing of wealth? In a democracy such as ours a person enjoys the freedom to work or not to work, to negotiate the terms and conditions of employment and/or to quit the job if the terms and conditions are unacceptable. No one is therefore under any obligation to seek election to Parliament but if elected he/she would be at liberty to resign from the office if the terms and conditions are not in accord with the demands of the office. When politicians seek election to Parliament it is presumed that they do so fully aware of the fact that political sovereignty lies with the people and not with them. 

For the purposes of ensuring that the salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of members of Parliament, ministers, parliamentary secretaries, judges and other offices Section 140 of the Constitution provides for the establishment of a Salaries Review Commission while Section 141 provides that the commission shall from time to time with the approval of the President review the salaries and allowances of the President, members of Parliament, ministers of Government and parliamentary secretaries and submit a report to the President who shall forward a copy thereof to the Prime Minister for presentation to the Cabinet and for laying the same on the table of each House.  

It would appear that some doubts have been raised as to whether the commission’s report is final or absolute or whether Parliament has the power or authority to amend or vary its content. However, it is a well-established parliamentary practice that once an item has been placed on the order paper of the House it becomes the subject of debate and may be accepted, varied or rejected by Parliament.   

Ours is a democracy and politicians know or ought to know that the people as a collective body constitute the State and for the purposes of governance they have established a Constitution in which is set out institutional mechanisms such as a Parliament and the election of members thereto as servants and/or agents of the people.

As a consequence it is the people’s sovereign right to indicate to parliamentarians whether or not they agree with what they do. Moreover, it is the prerogative of the people to say whether or not they agree with the proposed enhanced remunerations and allowances for parliamentarians. In the circumstances it would be totally inappropriate, irrational and indeed reprehensible for any member of Parliament to cast aspersions on the integrity of or to hurl absurd and vituperative charges against  people for exercising their constitutional right of freedom of expression. 

Kenneth Lalla SC is a former  chairman of the Public Service Commission