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More power to the rats

By Sunity Maharaj

Rats got an expected upgrade last week as the old order, panicked by the emerging power of civil society, bared its fangs and got downright nasty.

Camille Robinson-Regis may again win a seat in Parliament and, depending on how the political tide moves, might even find herself in a cabinet again. But, on the evidence of her attack against public opinion, she has little to offer to a society that is fighting to find its voice and muster the courage for standing up to power.

The most rewarding aspects of the public debate over the bills for improving the pensions of parliamentarians and judges was the willingness of persons such as Martin Daly, Reggie Dumas and Jackie Carr-Brown to step forward and make their expertise and opinions available to the public at no cost, and even at personal expense. This is public service as its most exalted. That such persons could be pilloried by someone protecting her pocket interest tells us everything we need to know about her.

The pensions debacle is yet another example of the dangers of our penchant for circumventing problems by seeking solutions outside the approved framework. Inevitably, they create more problems that they attempt to solve. Whether through inadequacy of resources, institutional malaise, lack of will and/or imagination, or legislative defect, the Salaries Review Commission has failed all of us, not just MPs and judges. It is we who have endowed it, through Parliament, with the responsibility and authority for ensuring that a category of those who provide public service are adequately and fairly compensated within the means of the Treasury. Whatever problems that have led to its failure to act in a timely fashion, or to act at all, should be resolved, openly and squarely. Indeed, it is the responsibility of Parliament itself to fix the problem. Instead, on a matter of personal and pecuniary interest, Parliament opted for the short cut solution and skirted the problem, kicking the problem down the road to some future parliament to take the bull by the horns and bring it to heel.

The number of fix-it proposals already suggested in the Senate tells us that the pensions bill that was so quickly and unhesitatingly passed in the Lower House was flawed and replete with unintended consequences.

Fortunately for us, we have had the benefit of the few people who were paying close enough attention to alert us in time and train our eyes on the Senate. Increasingly alert to the direction of the wind, the prime minister stepped in to support the bills going to a Senate committee. As of now, however, that position has not been carried to the Senate by the leader of Government business, Senator Ganga Singh. The bills are being debated with various suggestions of changes and amendments and could very well end up going to the vote. Indeed, it might even pass the Senate with a few cosmetic changes designed to appease public opinion.

Neither of these bills should ever have been brought to Parliament. In the case of the judges’ pensions bill, putting the matter of judges’ remuneration directly into the hands and say-so of politicians trespasses on the principle of the separation of powers. In the case MPs’ pensions, it is a direct conflict of interest. If Parliamentarians could determine their own pensions, why shouldn’t the rest of us? If we agree on the need for arm’s length determination of the remuneration for judges and MPs, then the PM’s proposal of a Senate committee would be unacceptable since all senators are direct beneficiaries.

As the entity with the appropriate arm’s length distance, the SRC must be made to work, on pain of whatever is required to get it to work. Instead of slipping one past the people, the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and the President need to put their heads together to identify the problem and consider the options for developing an effective and fundamental solution to the SRC problem, not some ad hoc plaster to their respective sores. If there are indeed retired judges in need, one might have to consider Senator Helen Drayton’s suggestion of a temporary, extraordinary allocation in line with existing provisions.

In terms of parliamentarians, it is hard to see how this issue can be de-linked from constitutional reform. It is even more difficult to see how the Government, in particular, which has spent a considerable sum of taxpayer money in the reform exercise, can go to Parliament to increase MPs pensions in the middle of that exercise. Unless it already knows and accepts that the constitution reform exercise is going nowhere, it makes no sense for the Government to tackle any part of MPs’ remuneration package since the entire configuration of Parliament could change in line with proposed reforms.

In failing to tackle our problems at a fundamental level, and repeatedly resorting to the ad hoc, we’re digging ourselves deeper and deeper into the hole and creating more and more problems and confusions for future generations to solve and untangle.

Given our wanton spending, rapid depletion of our natural resources and lethargic diversification of the economy, future generations will have much less resources to cope with the many problems we are leaving for them. On top of all that we are imposing on them, what could possess today’s Parliament to hobble them even more with the albatross of pensions payments that cannot be reduced? All we are doing is setting them up for strife and worse.
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