Former Presidents (Benefits and Other Facilities) Bill 20121429 25 Jan, 2013
Dr. Roopnarine: Before addressing some of the points raised so robustly by the Hon. Minister Irfaan Ali, I wish to, first of all, clear away for us some of the concerns raised by you, yourself, Mr. Speaker, when this matter was first brought to the National Assembly in a motion by the Hon. Mr. Greenidge, seeking the leave of the Assembly to move the first reading. You may recall, Mr. Speaker, that in your own ruling of, I believe, the 22nd October, you had indicated your concern that the Bill before us would run the risk of, in effect, having what I think you called the risk of being a concurrent initiative given the fact that a Special Select Committee had been established. I want to, as I said, begin by clearing away what I regard, if I may be so presumptuous, as something of a misunderstanding of the motion.
Mr. Speaker: I had addressed that with Mr. Greenidge quite successfully and, hence, I allowed the Bill to proceed. That day it was not distributed. I think I showed them to Mr. Greenidge and a few Members, raising them as concerns but not making official rulings. I appreciated the argument that, in fact, there was a clear distinction between the benefits and this Bill. I accepted Mr. Greenidge’s argumentation.
Dr. Roopnarine: I would not have sought to raise this again, Mr. Speaker, other than the fact that my friend, the Hon. Member Ms. Teixeira, at the last sitting had, in effect, argued that the motion being out before the House, seeking a first reading, basically on the same grounds that the matter had already been referred to a Special Select Committee and, as the Hon. Member pointed out, the Government had willingly engaged with the Special Select Committee and she regarded it as, I think, a breach of good faith that we were now engaging in an attempt to bring this particular Bill. If we are all agreed that there is no conflict between the Bill that is presently before us and the work of the Special Select Committee, I think we can proceed.
The simple truth, of course, is that the Bill before us does not, in any way, replicate the work of the Special Select Committee. That Committee has its tasks and those are, it seems to me, mostly of a rather technical nature and I was relieved that the Special Select Committee was being relieved of having to deal with the issue of benefits because it had the merit of relieving the Special Select Committee of the kind of political overburden that this Bill clearly has.
On the substantive matters of the Bill before us, I had previously argued, in my contribution to the debate on the 2nd August, that many of the caps that we are seeking to impose really are not so strange. They exist in other jurisdictions and I had given the example, at the time, of the United States of America itself. For instance, on the issue made much of about the silencing the President in relation to political expression, and so on, the fact of the matter is that in the United States of America provision there is also an arrangement made whereby the former President would be restricted. It says here clearly and I had not quoted this section in my previous presentation. I quote from the document here which is the Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for Congress, Former Presidents: Federal Pension and Retirement Benefits. It states here:
“The FY 1995 Treasury, Postal Service, and General Government Appropriations Act (108 Stat. 2410) prescribes the use of funds for allowances and office staff of former Presidents for partisan political activities.”
All it is attempting to ensure is that the benefits that the former President had coming to him or her were not used for partisan political activities and that is essentially an administrative restrictions. A Bill of theirs was dealing not only with caps – it did deal with caps – but it also dealt with some administrative constraints that were placed on the benefits. In other words, saying that these benefits would be given in relation to staff, and so on, provided that the President does not use them for partisan political activities. That was the intention there and, I dare to say, that it is the intention here, and perhaps the phrasing is something that we may want to look at.
I want to deal with some of the issues raised by the Hon. Member who preceded me. The issue of demotivation: Let me try to deal with this, first of all. The Hon. Minister made much of the fact that by seeking to do what we are doing, which is to quantify and impose some limits on these benefits, was demotivating to young people who might aspire to be Presidents. My hope is really that people who want to get into politics and public service would do so not because of the offer of unlimited pensions and benefits, but would do so - as I am sure my honourable friend did, not because he anticipated that he would become a Minister or he would earn money he entered into political activity, I hope - out of conviction, and so on. I do not believe that this particular argument holds much water. The idea that we would be disincentivising young people is one that I think is not a worthy argument.
On the issue of the five thousand dollars, I thought it was made clear that if for all that the President was going to receive was what is stated here, in this particular Bill, then I agree that five thousand dollars would be derisory. In point of fact the fulsomeness of the pension that he would be receiving has to be taken into account and, I think, the meagre amount that is coming out of the actual benefits has to be seen in the context of an already fulsome pension. This Bill is not seeking to affect the pension of the President. The pension of the President and other... [Mr. Ali: How do you know...[inaudible]?] I am not the one who is linking it. You are the one that, I believe, Mr. Speaker…
Mr. Speaker: Minister Ali, when you spoke I did my best to protect you and I am asking you to accord the same protection and assist me please by allowing Dr. Roopnarine to complete. Reciprocate please.
Dr. Roopnarine: I was making the point that if the… [Mr. Lumumba: You were linking it.] No. If the former President were receiving only what is stated in this Bill, then I dare say that five thousand dollars to pay his telephone and electricity, and so on, would be derisory. I quite agree. The fact is that this has to be seen in the context of what, under the Constitution and the Act… [Ms. Teixeira: … five thousand dollars is what?] That would be mean.
The point which was made by the Hon. Member and I do have to say that it is one of the points that he made with which I have some sympathy, and that is the fact that, I think, we need to look carefully, again, at the issue raised by him in relation to clause 3 (d) (ii). I do not believe that it was the intention of this Bill, or the drafters of this Bill, to deprive children so that if we want to look at this carefully it would be something I feel that we can consider amending. I do not think, and I reiterate, that there was any intention on the part of the drafters of this Bill to deprive children of their constitutional rights.
The other point I feel that, to my mind, was quite persuasive was the fact that the President really ought to be convicted rather than simply be charged. I happen to agree with that.
Having said those things Mr. Speaker, I believe…
Mr. Speaker: Dr. Roopnarine, the aspect with the children, you said that there is no intention to deprive…
Dr. Roopnarine: Right. I am saying that was not the intention of the Bill and that if…
Mr. Speaker: What happens, Dr. Roopnarine, if a President, male or female, marries someone who has a child or children?
Dr. Roopnarine: I presume that the President assumes responsibility of the child. That is what I understand. I do not believe that we should craft a Bill to deprive those children of their rights. I do not believe that we are in the business of attempting to pauperise the President or to deprive the President of a life of dignity. I believe that with the fullness of the President’s pension and with the capping of these particular benefits the President would have every opportunity to live a very dignified life.
I have already dealt with the issue of muzzling the President. I do not believe that, again, there is anything in the Bill that seeks to muzzle the President. We are simply saying that were the President to take advantage of these particular benefits then we would expect that the benefits would not be applied to partisan political activity and this is not, to my mind, an unreasonable request.
I really regretted, frankly, the charge of spite and vindictiveness. I think this was a fairly unworthy accusation. I want to say that I personally found, in terms of the presentation we have just heard, that this particular charge was unworthy. I wish to say on a purely personal note that had I the merest scintilla of suspicion that the motion seeking to address the issue of any former President’s pension and benefits were motivated not by a sense of social justice, but by spite and vindictiveness, I would have declined the invitation by my Whip to speak on the matter.
Allow me to say, perhaps wrong-headedly, that I do see the issue in social justice terms. I hope I will not incur the wrath of my friend, the Hon. Minister of Finance, if I make so bold to say that no amount of statistical nicety and no avalanche of figures and percentages will convince me that the gap between the super rich and the abysmally poor is not growing wider by the day. Whilst thousands upon thousands of our fellow citizens are living out futureless lives below the poverty line, at the very bottom of the economic ladder, whilst the epidemic of crime and violence spawned by this poverty and social collapse is spreading in all corners of our country, on the coasts, in the hinterland, whilst all of this is happening under our noses, a narrow circle of overnight millionaires is striving as never before, loudly displaying their new found extravagance in grotesque mansions and glass and concrete monstrosities that are sprouting the cities and towns. The Hon. Minister of Finance may want to give thought to some kind of uglification tax for these architectural abominations, that some calls development, but they are disfiguring our landscape. Perhaps my honourable friend, the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport, would give thought to annual uglification award for which I anticipate a flood of a well qualified applicants.
This is the social justice context, in which the issue of the former Presidents’ Pension (Benefits and Other Facilities) Bill has been brought before this House. It is a disappointment to me to see so many of my Comrades on the other side, many of whom, though not all, have come out of a tradition of defending the poor and powerless against the predations of the rich and the powerful, to see them now defending the indefensible, arguing in effect that to those who have more and more should be given even when this means taking more and more away from those who have less and less. Put simply, it is the business of this House, if it is to be forward looking, to correct injustice, not to defend and perpetuate it. It is my firm belief that our intention, in relation to the excesses of the Bill of 2009 that we now seek to repeal and substitute with another Bill, is aimed at correcting what we perceived to be an injustice. This, to my mind, it would be a mistake to see this aimed at any particular President or any particular person. This is a law we are making, not for any particular former President, but for all future former Presidents and we are hoping that the House would, in effect, act in the best interest of social justice and support this Bill. Should there be amendments offered to make the Bill consistent with previous legislation and the Constitution, I am sure that we, on this side, would not hesitate to consider them positively.
With those brief remarks I wish to commend the Bill to the House. [Applause]
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