Not very often, but occasionally, we get the opportunity to see straight through to the real, unvarnished personality and psyche of politicians and political parties. When such occasions occur, we must ensure we understand them for what they are and read them for what they portend.
Such an occasion presented itself last week as the furore over the two pension bills passed in the Lower House rose to fever pitch. Opposition to the bills came from a wide cross-section of people, including some such as Martin Daly, SC, Reginald Dumas, former head of the Public Service, and Terrence Farrell, former deputy governor of the Central Bank, whose collective expertise and experience is such that any opinion they venture on a public-policy issue should be carefully considered.
This was the response of the Prime Minister whose statement last Tuesday indicated the Government had decided to put the Judges Salaries and Pensions (Amendment) Bill and the Retiring Allowances (Legislative Service) (Amendment) Bill on hold.
She did not hesitate to claim the moral high ground, boasting, “Consistent with my policy of always allowing views to be ventilated and decisions arrived at after such due consideration, the Government’s current position would be not to proceed with approving the bills until all perspectives and opinions are ventilated.”
Anyone knowing this Government and the lack of transparency in most of its practices would take such a statement with a grain of salt. But of course the Prime Minister is a politician and politicians put the best face possible on events. What is most important here is recognition of the Prime Minister’s political instinct which told her, in the face of the widespread outcry, the best move was to halt and reassess her options.
It is therefore important to note on this same issue, and in the face of the same outcry, the response from the Opposition Leader and his Leader of Business in the Senate was the exact opposite.
For Dr Rowley it does not matter who, or how many, or why citizens were outraged. He remains convinced the bills are warranted. Clearly, if he were the Prime Minister, they would now be law, awaiting only the President’s assent.
Recall that opposition to the bills was based on the issue of constitutionality given the role of the Salaries Review Commission (SRC), along with the issue of the unprecedented inclusion of allowances in the calculation of pensions and the principle (a different proposition from constitutionality) that MPs should not legislate their own remuneration.
For Dr Rowley none of these arguments mattered because “the SRC is not prepared to pay members of Parliament” what he considers MPs deserve. In fact, he considers the SRC’s salary proposals an insult and he thundered: “Imagine the SRC approves a salary for parliamentarians ($17,000 for members of the House of Representatives without ministerial portfolio and $13,000 for members of the Senate). That is lower than the housing allowance of a judge (which is $24,000 tax-free).”
There is no getting away from his righteous indignation and indeed, certainly as far as I am concerned, he may well be right. MPs deserve better salaries (regardless of performance since we pay the job, not the person).
But—and this is the key issue here—that is emphatically not a reason to, and does not justify, riding roughshod over the Constitution and the principles governing democratic parliamentary practice.
If we thought Dr Rowley may have spoken in the heat of the moment and “misspoke”, the utterly revolting diatribe Camille Robinson-Regis, his Leader of Business in the Senate, spewed in the Upper House last Tuesday indicated his position was no mistake and reflected exactly how he and his party were thinking.
Mrs Robinson-Regis described all those who opposed the bills as “rats coming out of their holes”. She declared: “There has been a feigned outcry, feigned ignorance and there has been an unexpected level of hypocrisy. Parliamentarians must be treated like dogs... That is what this society believes... You must work hard and, at the end of the day, you must be kicked, be ill-treated.”
Do you understand the implications of this vitriol unleashad against citizens who took the responsibility to oppose legislation which they felt to be wrong? Do you understand what it means that this is the party (and the people) seeking to become our next government?
Do you begin to understand what it really means to be between a rock and a hard place?