Friday, February 23, 2018

The right thing but wrong reason

 Politics, principle and public opinion mesh only infrequently, but Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s decision to put the pensions legislation on hold is one of those rare occasions.

In deciding to temporarily suspend the passage of the Judges’ Salaries and Pensions (Amendment) Bill and the Retiring Allowances (Legislative Service) (Amendment) Bill, Ms Persad-Bissessar deftly outmanoeuvred PNM leader Keith Rowley who, in the face of mounting public outrage, continued to defend the Opposition’s support of this self-serving legislation and, after the Prime Minister’s announcement, responded by saying that he found her motives suspect. In other words, Dr Rowley’s defence was that, even if Ms Persad-Bissessar was doing the right thing, it was for the wrong reasons.

That, however, is politics. Even if the Prime Minister took her decision only because she realised that passing the bills would further turn public opinion against her already-beleaguered administration, this is just good political strategy. By contrast, PNM Senator Camille Robinson-Regis, Dr Rowley’s appointee as Minority Leader in the Upper House, described everyone who criticised the bill as “rats” and went on to paint a completely false picture of these criticisms. “There has been a feigned outcry, feigned ignorance and there has been an unexpected level of hypocrisy,” thundered Ms Robinson-Regis, oblivious to any irony.

The key problems with the legislation as outlined by Senior Counsel Martin Daly, former Public Service head Reginald Dumas and other concerned citizens are as follows: the bills unconstitutionally bypass the Salaries Review Commission; the formula used to calculate the pensions is financially unsustainable; the quantum bears no relation to performance.

Moreover, contrary to the impression given by Senator Robinson-Regis and Attorney General Anand Ramlogan and some other MPs, most critics have specifically stated that they agree that the pensions of retired judges must be increased. But those MPs defending the bills have been using sob stories about difficulties experienced by the judges in order to defend their own proposed increases—which, of course, was the political purpose in putting the two bills together.

By listening to public opinion, Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar has earned a temporary reprieve from citizens’ condemnation. But the fact remains that this situation should never have arisen in the first place. The Government should have known that the legislation would have caused an outcry, should have been transparent instead of passing the bills in record time, and should have engaged proper procedures to ensure that the retired judges and former MPs, for whom they are now expressing such heart-rending compassion and concern, got properly calculated pensions within a reasonable time-frame.

Instead, thanks to the games-playing from both Government and Opposition, these persons will now have to continue to suffer in silence.