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Paying for their security


An examination of the historical experience of St. Vincent and the Grenadines would reveal that one of the worst pieces of legislation to be passed in Parliament is one pertaining to the benefits of Parliamentarians.

This is none other than the Pensions Bill for members of the House of Assembly piloted by the late Prime Minister Milton Cato and approved by his “strongest government in the world”, the Labour-dominated Parliament of 1980. That legislation and the political issues surrounding it created much controversy, not only at its passing but even had repercussions in the year 2000 when the then NDP government sought to extend those benefits leading to the massive unrest that shortened the life of that government.{{more}}

Lest it be mistaken, the issue, in 1980 as twenty years later, was never that of pensions for Parliamentarians themselves, though many persons vented their anger in that general direction, somewhat unfairly. For who, reasoned citizen, could object to a pension for Parliamentarians for years of meritorious service. It was that, first of all with the level of disillusionment with policies and the behaviour of Parliamentarians (the years 1974-1984 were particularly notorious), many persons just wouldn’t hear of Parliamentary pensions.

More particularly, what galled people most was the fact that Parliamentarians were to be entitled to a pension and gratuity after a mere two terms in office, nine and a half years as it turned out in practice. This while public servants had to serve until 55, even if they started at 18, and thousands of other workers had little or even no pension rights at all. It was enough to cause outrage, and it did, making the measure, in spite of Parliamentary approval, one of the most unpopular acts of the Cato government. It was small wonder that the attempt in 2000 to extend these benefits met with such widespread protest.

Besides the issue of the pension itself, its qualifying basis and terms, the granting of pensions for Parliamentarians has had profound political implications for our society. First of all, there has been the effect on those elected for two terms and thus qualifying for a pension. Achieving this status has become an end in itself, with MPs doing everything possible, fair or foul to be re-elected and so earn pension rights. The tragedy is that they never seem to consider service to the people as being the surest guarantee of re-election. Once re-elected and with a pension assured, a rapid transformation seems to overcome the Parliamentarians. Haughtiness, a cultivated sense of arrogance often seems to emanate giving the message, rightly or wrongly, “I don’t care, my pension safe”. Neglect sets in and representation of the people seems hardly to be a priority.

Another negative effect of all this is the pressure on political parties, particularly those in government, to re-select incumbents to contest the next elections, not on the basis of performance or merit, but purely to enable them to qualify for a pension. Even when the party itself is dissatisfied with that incumbent’s performance, all sorts of personal lobbying takes place in order to “give him a chance to get his pension”. Have we not heard ridiculous “justifications” advanced such as “he has his mortagage to pay’? What about the rest of us?

All this is done to the detriment of the welfare of the country. It is a gross disservice which ought to be remedied. We simply cannot continue to carry dead-weight at the expense of taxpayers because we lose at both ends–from the standpoint of rewarding persons for inefficiency and non-performance, as well as by continuing to keep that same non-performer in Parliament or even in government thereby depriving the country of the service of a more committed and efficient representative.

We have paid a heavy price for this. Having been short-changed by that MP’s incompetence, we now have to shoulder the burden of a gratuity and pension for a service we never properly obtained, while his party eases him out and slips in another in the game of political musical chairs. At the same time deserving workers of 30 and more years’ service are forced to make do with NIS contributions in their latter years.

Parliamentarians make sacrifices, no doubt, and ought to be suitably rewarded for their efforts on our behalf. Accepting the challenge of public office in a country like ours is a courageous step. But we must be even-handed in our treatment of their benefits.

The basis for pension must be in line with what obtains in the rest of our society and must not be regarded as a reward for political cronyism or a sop to inefficiency.

And we must continue to press for some manner of control over the actions of our MPs such as in a constitutional recall provision.