Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Parliamentary reform and the Salary\Pension issue

 Last weekend, I received a number of telephone calls from some of my old PNM friends and associates seeking a possible explanation as to why Dr Keith Rowley, the Leader of the Opposition, had made such a classic error by supporting the Retiring Allowances Legislative Service Amendment Bill. 

Why did he support the bills? Some of them were very angry and indicated that they would have to reconsider their position in respect to the 2015 election. Others were confused, and sought explanations as to why Rowley appeared to have become politically suicidal. Despite my general interest in the issue of parliamentary reform, I had not yet paid much attention to the particular bills. But I was however taken aback by the seemingly unanimous view that Dr Rowley may well have lost the mandate of Heaven and possibly the 2015 election. 

Thus my decision to seek further understanding of what were the issues in controversy. Was Dr Rowley such a politically tactless leader? I had no particular competence in answering these queries, but thought that I would offer a view in my capacity as a political analyst.

Given the view that I had formed after observing him over the years, I suspected that there were reasons for Rowley’s seeming political adventurism. What follows is based mainly on his speech to Parliament on June 13, 2014 and on other documents related to the changes in the oversight Committees that were scheduled to become operative in the new legislative term. 

MPs who have a view of Dr Rowley as being aggressive must have been surprised when he began to speak on the bill. It was not the address of someone who was pugnatious. Given the criticisms that one frequently hears about parliament as an institution which had failed, he believed that he had a responsibility to take a stateman’s approach, one which was fitting to his standing as the longest serving and most experienced person in the House, Mr Manning excepted. 

He congratulated Dr Moonilal whom he said had done an excellent job in describing the facts surrounding parliamentary life. He, Rowley, did not think there was any need to change any of the facts. Facts are facts. 

Rowley declared himself a man with a “mission” to change the way in which our institutions functioned. To make the requisite adjustments, the SRC had to play a vital role. The problem was that the SRC had so far done a “poor and worrisome job”. The SRC, and indeed the President who has the constitutional responsibility for activating it, did not seem to appreciate the urgency of the task at hand. Dr Rowley had in fact written to the President in March advising him as to what was taking place in respect of the structural changes that were imminent. 

Seven new standing committees were being loaded on to the parliamentary system. They were the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee, the National Security Committee, The Energy Committee, The Committee on Foreign Affairs, The Committee on Sustainable Development, and the Committees on Diversity, Broadcasting, and Government Assurances. All of these Committees will have to be manned by parliamentarians who would be part-time.

Rowley complained that he had had no reply from the President. As he moaned, “I think the SRC is completely out of step about where Parliament is going, or is supposed to go. I cannot understand what was going through their minds...So its very being is now being questioned. If the SRC will not properly treat with members of Parliament, well, what is the purpose? They came into being to prevent us from having to do this, but it has to happen if we are to get out of it.” Rowley believed that the new terms of service of MP’s should coincide with the commencement of new committee system for the House of Representatives.

Surprisingly, the SRC claims that while it has constitutional jurisdiction over Parliament, it does not have the required resources to do what is required. As Mr Collier, the SRC chairman observed in response to the charge that it was slothful, “there is a misconception as to who actually does the job evaluation exercise. It is not the SRC. It is done by consultants [but] we have no resources to engage any consultants”. What seems be happening here is that there are many constitutional gatekeepers, but no consensus as to which gate is to be manned by whom. Every body is blaming the other for institutional ineptitude.

Rowley had some very relevant things to say about how our existing political system works which are germane to the emolument and pension issues. The Prime Minister is in control of the House in such a way that she indirectly dictates exactly what MP’s earn by virtue of whom she puts in the Cabinet and who is left out. “This is prime-ministerial power. The Prime Minister has to keep everybody happy and within the ranks. But that needs to be changed. All the MPs are playing block and tackle for State enterprises, running interference, in some instances for wrong doers...So you call for a document, you call for an investigation and a member of the cabinet is in these committees opposing it.”

Rowley argued that one has to deconstruct this system and replace it with an alternative in which the people gain more political control and more meaningful accountability, acting through their MPs. Power had to be shifted from the prime minister to the people. Under the existing system, everybody or almost everybody must be given ministerial ranks to allow them to get a fair income. The key to unlocking the system is to dramatically reduce the size of the cabinet and correspondingly increase the number of well paid parliamentarians. Better paid MPs would well mean more and better monitoring, less corruption and hopefully less waste. Voila!

Rowley believes that the impending increase in the number of oversight committees would have implications for the way parliamentarians would be remunerated. The changes required members of Parliament to work full-time. According to him,” the system can only work well if members do not have to fight to get into the Cabinet and thereby a fair income. Those who serve in the Cabinet will have a different agreement-more elevated arrangement” The proposed system should lead to improvements in the way the executive and legislative arms work, but much more would be required.

But small cabinets also had problems relating to discipline. We will look at these push back problems in a follow up column. 

—To be concluded