Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Painful pensions

Express editorial logo445

Mark Fraser

On Friday June 13, parliamentarians in the Lower House gave new meaning to the phrase “himself to himself” when they approved massive increases in pension payments to themselves, and past and future Members of Parliament.

This phrase, made popular by Golden Age calypsonian The Mighty Spoiler, originally told the story of a magistrate who tried himself for speeding. Not by chance, under the “Judges Salaries and Pensions Amendment Bill and the Retiring Allowances Legislative Service Bill, 2014”, judges also stand to profit handsomely from the legislation.

So Government and Opposition MPs, who can generally agree on nothing, were in sweet accord as they voted to increase their pension benefits. Even Opposition Leader Keith Rowley, who just last month stated that the People’s National Movement would no longer co-operate with the Government on anything, found two Fridays ago that he “would have great against this arrangement’’.

Since then, ordinary citizens have been in uproar over this bold-faced and self-serving move. One letter-writer pointed out that the formula proffered by Housing Minister Roodal Moonilal, who piloted the measures, argued that MPs pay packages should be commensurate with private sector ones. This bears absolutely no relation to the manner in which pensions are calculated by actuaries. MPs have received pension since 1969. They contribute six per cent of their basic salaries. This percentage has never increased, although pensions over time have.

Yet, up to last Saturday, Dr Moonilal claimed that he had not yet heard “any compelling arguments” against MPs getting bigger pensions.

Hopefully, the Minister will regain his hearing when the bill comes before the Senate this week. Since Government and Opposition Senators will echo their parties’ identical lines, it is up to the Independent Senators to put on record ethical and legal arguments, rather than the specious rhetoric spouted by their Lower House counterparts.

The SRC board is also due to meet with President Anthony Carmona to discuss the constitutionality of this bill. It might therefore behove the Law Association, if not the judges, to pronounce on this issue earlier rather than later.

However, if the politicians on both sides want to calm this coming storm, they should put the legislation on hold and appoint a Special Committee to consider the bill’s provisions and implications. Such a committee must be independent and the MPs and the judges must be consulted, the process must be transparent and the conclusions of the Committee must be sound and therefore unchallengeable.

Otherwise, this legislation will surely be challenged in both the courts of public opinion and the court of law and would be a permanent stain on the Parliament—in which case, as Spoiler sang, every MP may find that “himself charge himself for contempt of court”.