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Sewer rat snarls

By Raffique Shah

At the risk of being branded a snarling sewer rat by Senator Camille Robinson-Regis, I return to the issue of pensions for parliamentarians. Following expressions of outrage from a broad cross section of the population, across partisan lines, over the pensions approved unanimously by members of the House of Representatives, the Prime Minister made a mild retreat.

She said she would allow senators to debate the bill and propose amendments, and referred to possibly setting up a Senate committee to review the contentious issue. The populace expected senators, more so the independents, to attempt to bring some sanity to what is an insane piece of legislation.

Thus far, that has not happened. Instead of heeding the cry for some equity and common sense in determining pensions for parliamentarians, senators had a field day jamming those who dared to disagree with the overly generous, self-approved bounties. They wildly applauded Robinson-Regis as she tore into critics she called rats, and members of the Salaries Review Commission (SRC).

The message from the Senate was that parliamentarians are entitled to the best pensions packages in the world, and “who don’t like it could get to hell out of here”.

Now, I don’t know if these people are for real. They are saying to us that even though they voluntarily offered themselves for the offices they hold, presumably well aware of the compensation packages on offer before they took the plunge, they have the right to alter the terms and conditions so drastically, they are fixed for life, even as 99 per cent of pensioners suffer in silence on pensions of $4,000 a month or less.

Listening to Robinson-Regis on the attack, the uninformed would believe that the SRC failed to heed parliamentarians’ cries for proper salaries and perks for 15, 20 years. You would think that heartless members of the SRC fixed themselves, and ignored the dogs (Robinson’s description) in parliament.

What are the facts? The most recent SRC review of salaries for some 300 classes of public officers amounting to 900 persons was completed in November 2013 and debated and approved in Parliament in February last. Before that, a 2008 review recommended no increases because of the state of the economy (I did not read that report, but I gathered as much from the debate). This means that the last time those who fall under the purview of the SRC had increases was in 2005.

Almost all the officers who fall under the SRC—these include a host of obscure commissioners and office holders in institutions such as COSTAATT, Police Complaints Authority—receive a host of benefits in addition to their basic salaries. Priority is given to a duty-free, VAT-free motor vehicle for which government loans are granted.

In addition to this facility, the office-holders enjoy a transport allowance, mostly at around $5,000 a month. Ministers also enjoy allowances for subsistence, entertainment, housing ($12,360) and overseas travel ($36,800 per annum), and so on.

Based on the SRC recommendations, approved by Parliament, the PM’s basic salary moved to $59,680 a month (taxable), up from $48,000, and her overall package (excluding housing, entertainment, official vehicles etc) stands at around $75,000. Ministers make $41,000 basic, with packages of $61,000. And at the lower end, MPs and senators make $21,000 (includes transport) and $13,000 respectively.

By national standards, these are not very high salaries and allowances. In the energy and finance sectors, CEOs make more than $100,000 a month. But CEOs are held to account for their performances and they can be summarily fired by boards.

Let me now return to the contentious pensions issue. There are several fundamental flaws in what is being proposed. First is the minimum service—four years. If in an MP’s (or senator’s) life, he or she served only five years, what did he/she do otherwise? Lahay? Locho? I served for five years, and I worked my butt off to take care of my family, living modestly and saving a few dollars in the process.

The minimum service for pension should be ten years.

Second, how can they even think of factoring in all allowances in calculating pensions? Surely, pensions cannot include allowances such as duty, transport, subsistence, overseas travel, and so on.

Third and most important, how dare they index pensions to current emoluments? That is not simply vulgar, it is unsustainable. Trade unions have fought for decades to have workers’ pensions indexed to the cost of living, which is a fair way to allow pensioners to meet increased expenses as they grow older. The unions have failed in most instances.

If senators approve all of the above anomalies, then they can expect the unions and associations that represent all categories of public sector workers, from public servants to teachers, policemen to health sector, to justifiably demand similar pensions-calculations and pensions-indexing for their tens of thousands of members and retirees.

Can you say no to them after you have said yes to yourself? I guess you can—if you are unconscionable, which is what most politicians are. They plead with us to feel sorry for them, but they have no compassion for the most vulnerable in society.
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