Tortoise feathers and incredulity
Posted on December 22nd, 2016

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Hats off (by those who still wear them), in applause to TULF leader, Mr. V. Anandasangaree (VA) for his forthright condemnation of the recent hikes in salaries, perks and allowances of MPs. As reported in The Island of 2nd of December, he expresses so cogently “It is not morally right for MPs to shower such benefits on themselves while the people are suffering.” He sounds a salutary warning that “This kind of extravagance and disregard for the public, mark the beginning of the end of government.” It would not be easy to express these truths more tellingly. Unfortunately, his appeal to “the moral conscience” of politicians is likely to be as futile as the quest for tortoise feathers. Hence the title for this piece!

The frustration and hopelessness of the public could hardly have been expressed better. It was reported that some cynical bigwig in Government declared that if any MP wished to disagree, he was free to not avail himself of the benefits! Predictably, there will be no takers! It has been said that when rulers are tyrants by choice, subjects become rebels by compunction.

It is probable that the Government is lulled into the belief that the recently enacted (by them) 19th Amendment to the Constitution provides an insurance against being unsettled any earlier than four years. The public are smugly reminded of this regularly. Let us hope, for the sake of our nation, that the road to this goal will be smooth and the ride will not be too bumpy. Recent events suggest this may not be so. Distant rumblings may be a foreboding of storms to come.

There is a widespread belief that these indefensible moves are motivated by a sense of sadism or deadly mischief, but they may besuicidal. The perks of MPs are murky and obscure. These surely cannot be unknown to officials on the staff, down to the clerical and even below. There is surprising, clam-like confidentiality – perhaps ensured by bribery or a fear of being penalized even to the extent of losing their incomparably lucrative employment. Except for the occasional incidental disclosures, mostly in answer to Members’ questions, the book remains firmly shut. We have been told that the cost of a day’s sittings alone of Parliament is Rupees six million, and that the former President cost twenty million Rupees per day! Perhaps, this is regarded as justifiable “to preserve the supremacy of the people and to guarantee the sovereignty and territorial integrity”, whatever these lofty words may mean. I am unaware whether our Parliamentary Staff are governed by an Oath of Secrecy in regard to “all matters” pertaining to Parliament, to justify their reticence. Such a rule is understandable, although indefensible, except where the Security of the State is at risk.

When confronted, our representatives are not slow to cite the Singapore Legislature. It is true that political office in Singapore is richly rewarded. It is also true that our legislature’s quality is in sharp contrast, not only in terms of reward. One has only to peruse the CVs of the Singapore Cabinet and its size. I blush to do so. I make bold to say that with a depressingly small number of exceptions, not one of ours would warrant a second scrutiny. In Sri Lanka, Cabinet Portfolios are recklessly created to satisfy the basest of political designs. If reform is honestly desired, a salutary step would be to include in the Constitution, that the maximum number of Cabinet and other Ministers be laid down in binding election manifestos ahead of the polls. I realize that this is a forlorn hope. To continue this act of day dreaming, dare one suggest also, that the list of duties of each should also be specified? This would be considered an indispensable provision in any respectable organization. Not so, in the case of our Supreme Legislature, although this should be a mandatory provision. Else the current trend will deteriorate into a spectacle of fission of portfolios without limit. We already deserve to be derisively laughed at by anyone who surveys the present scene. To develop the Singapore situation, suffice it to mention that the high salary is all inclusive. If a legislator finds it expedient to occupy a luxury house or to own a fancy car, he would be at perfect liberty to do so – but at his own cost. I have heard it said that except for State Banquets, even the President of the United States pays for his meals and those of his family!

Nowhere is political inequity more manifest than in the matter of vehicle permits. There are several categories- judicial, medical, professional, and diplomatic entitled to “Import Duty Concessions” for vehicles. It would be instructive to compare the terms of their concessions relative to what applies to MPs. Almost all the restrictions imposed on others, are probably exempt in the case of politicos. As a case in point, some years ago, a returning Ambassador was entitled to the privilege of importing a car, but constrained by a number of conditions. It had to be of a c.i.f value not exceeding U.S. dollars 8,000. In comparison, at that time, an MP was entitled to U.S. dollars 37,500. Now the gap is probably wider, and the disparity even more so. Sale of the permit was unthinkable. The vehicle had to arrive within six months of return. The privilege was only once in a lifetime. Proof could be demanded of having a private car during the term of office abroad. The vehicle could not be transferred or sold for ten years. This was for a person grandly declared to represent the whole nation. Contrast this with a person who represents no more than an electorate, and if an appointed MP not even that. All men are equal, however, we are told!

Grant it to MPs and surely, it will not be long before local government panjandrums will seek and be bestowed the same privileges. After all, they too have to attend weddings, funerals, birthdays, and “comings of age” of their constituents- more so being physically closer to their voters! That the adults in political office can offer such puerile and idiotic justifications for these privileges that are already unreasonable, is beyond belief, and does no credit to those in whom the public have reposed such hopeful trust.

Is our nation doomed beyond rescue? Is it merely sufficient to throw away rubbish at periodic elections and have them only replaced by worse?

Will the expressed hope of VA for a “moral conscience” continue to be hopeless – until tortoises evolve to being feathered?

 

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