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MP's salaries: Table a motion and let the argument flow

Inside Parliament

With Balford Henry

Monday, November 19, 2018

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How did a committee meeting at Gordon House last week on the right to legal abortion turn into an appeal for improved compensation for MPs?

The public must be wondering, and so too, the media.

The committee agenda for the meeting of select and joint select committees listed that the Human Resources and Social Development Committee (HRSDC), chaired by Opposition MP Ronald Thwaites (Kingston Central), was scheduled to deal with Juliet Cuthbert Flynn's (St Andrew West Rural) controversial Private Member's Motion seeking to have a law protecting women who want an abortion outside the current limitations in legislation.

The committee decided that the broader theme of the Jamaican family should guide the discussions during the session, “in all of its manifestations”.

The HRSDC chairman said that, in respect of Cuthbert Flynn's resolution, the committee wished to have circulated to members, communications on all the deliberations and reports tabled in Parliament on the issue since 2007. He also said that the committee would ensure that there is congruence between its proceedings and that of the existing joint select committee on sexual offences legislation, which is still unable to complete its work.

He said that the committee would eventually issue a call for interested persons to make submissions on the issue of legal abortions.

Well, it did sound like a cop-out, making it even clearer that not even the select committees of Parliament want to discuss issues like abortion, and more and more showing Cuthbert Flynn growing in the image of a very brave MP.

Or, how else could the chairman of the committee asked to look into her abortion motion, instead start looking into the salaries and benefits of the parliamentarians themselves?

There was a motion in the House of Representatives from Government back-bencher Marisa Dalrymple Phillibert which raised the issue of the pension paid to retired judges. During that debate at a previous meeting of the House, Thwaites had raised the issue of the benefits to parliamentarians, especially in terms of health coverage. The MP was absent from the House when it was suggested to refer it to the HRSDC and again on Thursday when Thwaites' committee actually met.

And, there was no indication that it had actually been referred to the committee, as only the abortion resolution was included in the agenda for Thursday.

But Thwaites explained it was obvious that the reason behind the abortion motion being passed on to his committee was that there is a requirement that, after a report on the issue is tabled and approved by the House of Representatives, it should be referred to the Cabinet for a decision within 21 days.

“I am only figuring that the reason why it came to this committee is for that process, torturous though it is, of getting into Cabinet and getting a response to take place,” he said.

But what became obvious is that, just like the abortion issue, most parliamentarians are also afraid of publicly raising an issue about their own compensation. Not Opposition MP Dr Fenton Ferguson, though.

Ferguson insisted that the parliamentarians have always been afraid to speak to the issue of their salaries, which is why many people who would have served in Parliament are not willing to do so.

“Moving into even retirement, the arrangements that have been made in the past have never been to the benefit of those who serve,” he said.

“Pension arrangements, even though it is a participatory pension arrangement, are still not adequate, but because of the sensitivity of it we have always been afraid to take it on. And that is something that I believe that there must be some kind of bipartisan agreement in how we deal with this in a principled way,” he suggested.

Thwaites said that he did not think that it was inappropriate to take up the issue Dr Ferguson raised. He urged the more recent members of the House to become aware that in his 20-odd years in Parliament, and during his tenure in Cabinet, he had been approached on several occasions to assist in easing the poverty being experienced by retired MPs.

“Two deputy prime ministers — from either side of this House who had health issues, chronic health issues — have had to seek to be assisted ex gratia from the public purse because of the insufficient arrangements made for us,” Thwaites said.

“I believe that is something that makes it incumbent on us, at this time, to address, not out of any greed nor out of a failure to understand the failures faced by other people in the public service and in the country generally, but it is undignified for that to happen — and it has happened so many times,” he concluded.

The chairman then asked the committee what they thought about airing the issue.

Newcomer Michael Stewart (Opposition), a teacher, said that it could not be overemphasised that there was a need to take a critical look at the issue.

“And we have to support it, because we have seen where many of our public servants who have served this nation have ended up on the 'begging bench' so to speak,” he said.

“And so I, as a young parliamentarian, do really support this and ask that others come on board and take a comprehensive look at it, so that we can move forward and rescue ourselves,” he added.

But, realising that Government members were not showing any willingness to join the chorus, Thwaites asked whether the members felt it appropriate for some research to be done by a particular member or members, and a motion be placed in Parliament addressing the subject.

“That might eventually end up back here, but at least it would address the subject in ways that would overcome the timidity that everybody has shown in previous days,” he said.

Dr Ferguson recalled that a Parliamentary Salaries Review Committee, chaired by Gleaner chairman Oliver Clarke in 2005, had reviewed the salaries issue and made several recommendations, which were never approved. Instead, it had the negative effect of removing a condition that salaries of Cabinet ministers should be $52 above that of their permanent secretaries, with the result that salaries of the permanent secretaries have now risen way above that of Cabinet ministers.

However, the chairman remained unsure whether the issue should be pursued by the committee.

“Is it too sensitive a matter, or not our remit?' Thwaites asked.

Government MP Angela Brown Burke responded that, “If it is not our remit, I don't know whose remit it is.”

However, she too seemed cagey about pursuing the matter.

“I want to make sure that it is not used as a political football, as it is a discussion that would be taking place in the context of a no-trust environment, as far as politicians are concerned. So, in a sense, I understand why persons are reluctant, especially given the adverse conditions that many find themselves in, notwithstanding the prosperity being (claimed) by others,” she said.

“So when I think of that, there can be that type of dissonance, but I believe it is not only about politicians, but public servants in general…It is certainly something that we need to look at, but it requires a little more discretion amongst the parties,” she added.

Dr Ferguson said that he was not arguing that parliamentarians should get a raise of pay at this time.

“What I am putting on the table is that the conversation must take place, now,” he explained.

He said that just like the abortion motion, it would be a courageous attempt to deal with a difficult matter that is not only a problem in Jamaica, but globally.

“People have a perception that all of us who become politicians come from a position of almost being poor to become a politician to get rich. Some of us come to the table differently, so it is not so. We have to look at the issue and deal with it and take whatever position,” he said. “I am not talking just for politicians, but I have had the opportunity of seeing what has happened to many of our politicians.”

Eventually a single Government member, none other than Cuthbert Flynn, interceded that she felt the same way as Ferguson.

“As a newbie I also have a different perception of parliamentarians and politicians in general, and I think just being out there with the constituents, that a lot of them don't understand politics and what it takes. Most people think that we have an abundance of money, and I have heard so many. One of the things they say to me is, 'make sure you don't go broke while you are doing this job'. And so, I think it is definitely a conversation that must be had,” she said,

“And, as Dr Ferguson said, even if nothing comes out of it, the conversation must be had… and if we have the conversation I think people will understand our position on how much we actually make,” Cuthbert Flynn added.

Thwaites eventually concluded that he would be guided by the sentiments expressed by the members, place a motion in Parliament that would raise a discourse, “and let it flow from there”.

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