Former Presidents (Benefits and Other Facilities) Bill 20121938 25 Jan, 2013
Mr. Nagamootoo: Mr. Speaker, I am reminded today of the famous remarks made by John F. Kennedy, late President of the United States of America, when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” Today I find it indefensible that anyone should even try to advocate that someone who, by choice and subterfuge, could have been President of this country – could have been - would ask, as a primary consideration, that the contribution be recognised in monetary terms and in terms of benefits as well.
Public life is a duty. The calling to duty is altruistic and is the job of the philanthropist, the do-gooder, the people who would want to see that they leave in what one writer described as the footprint in the sand of time, the goodness that they have done towards their fellow man and not how much purse they would take after they would have left office. This Bill - and I agree for one moment with the Hon. Minister of Finance - seems to be serving a controversial agenda, so much so that the controversy, when put before the Guyanese people on the 28th November, 2011...they were able to handle that controversy in a way that put shame to those who want to canvas a defence for the indefensible.
For some Sections that had claimed - and now I speak directly...I know the genesis of this piece of the 2009 legislation. Even if we have people over there who are committed to speak with veracity, the opposition I had raised to this piece of legislation being introduced that would give uncapped benefits to a former President, when I said that my soul rattled...they would not have faced the predicament they faced with the Guyanese people in the last Elections if they had heeded my warning that they were assaulting the conscience of people who put them into office and they seek to have rewards.
I had said then, when this issue came onboard, that we should all remember – and I was in the People’s Progressive Party leadership then – the exhortation of Ho Chi Minh, who taught us revolutionary morality, and the first and foremost in revolutionary morality that we imbibe was that salary, perks and privileges were not going to be our main motivation for serving the people. Today, we stand here and we hear people, in violation of those sacred exhortations and things that had meant so much to our upbringing and our political condition, try to argue that in a country as poor as Guyana, and in a country where so many people are below the poverty line, we try to convert the PPP into Pensions, Perks and Privileges.
The working people in this country will frown upon this degradation of what they once held as an institution of serving their interests. Now they realise that their interests have been personalised and that what matters is the idolisation of individuals rather than service to people. That, we find, is the mischief that this Bill seeks to correct, that we shall place people before personalities. We shall reject the temptation that we become political parasites that would feed upon the misery of our people, many of whom cannot seek out a decent livelihood and cannot live on what they earn.
We heard the solicitous lamentation by the Hon. Minister, Irfaan Ali, that if one gives $5,000 as allowance to a former President for telephone, electricity and water, that seems to be outrageous. I understand that an amendment will be made to specify the time - that is intended to be per month. We were told that this was such a horrendous thing that a former President who gets $1.2 million in pension - no one touches the pension; this is the distinction here: no one touches the 7/8 of the salary – will seek an advantage over a pensioner who had been given the miserly sum of $10,000 per month. Assuming that the pensioner pays $5,000 a month for electricity, water and telephone, which is 50 % of the pension, he or she is left with $5,000 to pay rent, to pay transportation, and to find food most of all. Today we came with this outrageous protestation that someone already earning $1.2 million a month would probably die and his dignity would be stolen if we did not give him $5,000 and more - if you dare give him $5,000 for water, that would assault the dignity of that person!
Dignity is weighed in terms of quantum of money, but dignity is also weighed in relation to the multitude of sufferings that the people who cannot have this kind of money are subjected to in their lives. That is when we steal their dignity - not giving pensioners more money, not giving teachers more money, not giving nurses or policemen or men and women in uniform more money! That is when we assault their dignity. When you take the little that they have, what have you left them with? Their self-esteem is gone; you condemn them to beggary, to prostitution and to be mendicants eating out of the barrels on the pavement. Are we not thinking of how we are marginalising our people and placing them in the margin of the poor and deprived - the sufferings of these people? We are looking here today to defend the perks. These are the perks that we give to our former Presidents.
Someone reminded me on the last occasion - this issue came in 2009 - whether or not I voted for this obnoxious piece of legislation. [Mr. Neendkumar: Moses, you did!] I did not! I had, at Freedom House, as a leader of that Party then, asked for a conscience vote and was told that once the Cabinet takes a decision on an issue, there shall be no change to it. Ask them who sit there - that it cannot be changed. There are Members there who would attest to how they felt on this issue and who might not have been able to express with the same strength and conviction when I spoke on this issue. [Interruption] You must produce the record because I told the press, immediately, that my soul rattled and I was not allowed a conscience vote on the issue. Everyone knew that this was offensive to the working people of this country!
This issue, as I said, is not about the pension. The Constitution, in article 181, states:
“(1) The President shall receive such salary and allowances as may be prescribed under the provision of article 222.
(2) A person who has held the office of President shall receive such pension or, upon the expiration of his term of office, such gratuity as may be prescribed by Parliament.”
The gratuity is a gratuity, as I understand it, to be money! It was never meant to put uncapped benefits and all kinds of perks to go with the former President. I say that the 2009 legislation may very well have collided with the Constitution. The obscene haste with which it was run through the Parliament, in 2009, might have meant that there was a personality agenda to be satisfied and not necessarily the obedience of the Constitution. Even if I were wrong in my interpretation, I still would have said, as we said in the campaign trail of 2011, that if we became the Government, we would repeal the entire Act. Once you are entitled to pension, we would feel that that is enough. As it is often said, when you have a donkey-cart economy, you cannot live a Mercedes-style or Cadillac-style living.
I understand, by this definition, we possibly may have two Presidents, not one. I do not where this glorification or [inaudible] of one. No one is naming anybody here or personalising anyone here. [Ms. Shadick: You are!] Not from this side. We saw a case being made out for the merit of a certain individual who should not only be given a hefty pension, but when one monetises all these benefits and other facilities, they very well comes up to $3 million a month! That is what we find to be objectionable, distasteful and shameful - that people could find this defensible knowing that the Guyanese people are out there having a hard time.
I remember when we came here to this Parliament, one could hear the protestation about more benefits, other benefits and so on. We came and we asked in order to ease the burden on the working people - we asked the so-called working class Government - to reduce VAT and they said, “No”; they cannot reduce VAT. We asked them to give a 10% increase in wages to public servants and they said, “No”; they cut it by half. We said to increase the pension to at least $15,000 per month and they said, “No”; they do not have money for the pensioners. We said to reduce the toll on the Berbice River Bridge and they said that they cannot do that because they will lose revenue. This is a Government that claims that they do not have revenue for the working people and, generally, the Guyanese people, but they are thinking that they have money to feed the voracious appetite of those who already have hefty pensions. Therefore, if there is such a term as an ‘inverse vulgarity’, I would say it is applicable in this instance.
May I say this? When someone says on his or her feet that we are discriminating and public servants are getting pensions and superannuation benefits, one would have read, very quietly, how they say, post-employment benefits. What a public servant gets is pension. Public servants do not get allowance for housing or security. They do not get duty free allowances. They do not get medical benefits for them and their children in wedlock or out of wedlock. Nobody is concerned about the public servant who has to go out there and live on his pension, much less someone projecting himself or herself into the future, perhaps not a viable or probable future...that you would have situation. If you did not have a situation now where a former President will have a child, then let us say the President may not have a child. But we may have to put, hypothetically, what if a former President will have an adopted child. We are dealing with now. We are dealing with the resources of the State now. We are dealing with the affordability at this time. We are saying that if you have these kinds of excursions into resources, deploying your resources for even unforeseen events that may not mature, then you are not dealing with reality; you are just trying to kerfuffle the Guyanese people into feeling that we are denying the unborn and the adopted of certain rights. This debate is not about that. This debate is about entitlement or not. I would say that Guyanese people are the best guide in this matter.
This Bill, of course, if there are some mistakes in it, we would hope that the other side would propose amendments; this is what this House is all about. If you do not agree, amend it. We are talking about the mistakes, the words that were used: this is full of mistakes. Personal remarks were made about the mover of the Motion. We have Act No. 12 of 2009, Former President (Benefits and other Facilities) Act, which is the Act from that side. It states that every person, who having held the office of President - so we are dealing with former Presidents - will have payment in respect of expenses incurred in the provision and use of water, electricity and telephone services at the place of residence in Guyana. This is uncapped. At least the mover of this Motion is trying to put a figure that we can correct and amend. He puts a figure that caps it - $5,000. So, as I said, I understood it to mean $5,000 per month.
That is not an obscenity, if you say so. If we are so concerned about what people get, I have here an assault on the dignity of Members of Parliament. They are paid the handsome sum of $20 per month telephone allowance. Let me say that again: it is not $20,000. The Members of Parliament, none of them stood up and said that this is an assault on their integrity and their dignity. No! Working and functioning Members of Parliament are paid $20 for telephone allowance. They are paid a duty allowance of $150 per month what a massive sum for our dignity! Functioning Members of the Parliament, elected by the people of this country, are paid $250 Guyana dollars as entertainment allowance. It is just about one and a half US dollars a month. I did not hear any bawling and screaming about the integrity and the dignity of this House. I did not hear a word, not a whimper. This is the reality; this is what you are dealing with. If you want to cut the suit to suit the cloth, then you have to deal with what you have. There must be a plausible explanation for this allocation that is here. We, Members of Parliament, do not have housing allowance, water allowance or electricity allowance. Do you think if we become a former MP that what we get as a former MP might be better than what we get as a sitting MP? We are asking if somebody who is a former somebody, holding public office, would be able to get all these perks and privileges. In Guyanese parlance: “What happen to we? Dog or goat bite we?” What happened to the pensioners - dog or goat bite them? They cannot get more? The logic of all of this has to be... When you go on the hustings, what do you tell the Guyanese people, the sugar workers, the bauxite workers, the municipal workers and everybody else in the workforce? What do you tell them on the street corner? Do you tell them that you sat in the Parliament and all you were concerned about is how to make a package of $3 million a month for an individual who has already served office? [Interruption] This is the mischief we are trying to correct. Services of personnel and household staff, including an attendant and a gardener... We did not say how many, just anything. It is just like the people in the country side when they are going to “shy” rice, they “shy” it and do not know where it drops; just “shy” as many as they can and they will probably grow. We are going to have all these people - uncapped. Service of clerical and technical staff, if requested, not if there is money; it only has to be requested and the imperial command shall be obeyed!
Someone who has served, probably well - the Guyanese people determined that already... They understand more than we do of how to reward people who are permanently in a “cuss down” mode. They know that. We do not have to tell them. Why are we having clerical and technical staff? Is this a department of the State? Are we running a new State Planning Commission? Is this Government doing something that it ought not to do which it needs a rival or parallel office somewhere or Cabinet to say what we should be doing right that we are doing wrong? Why do we need a replication or duplication of personnel, when there is a shortage, in this country, of resources, to place at the disposal of Government and the people? We did not say how many.
Then, free medical attendance... [Mr. Ramjattan: Attention.] “Attendance” is what this says. I do not know if that was a faux pas...and medical treatment - yes, it has to be “attendance” - and reimbursement of medical expenses incurred by him for the medical attendance or treatment of himself and the dependent members of his family: we did not say free medical attention where. And for the dependent members of his family, we did not say how many. We did not try to cap it. When the sugar workers go, the first thing they are told by the sugar industry is that they are unfit to work. When the sugar workers go to the National Insurance Scheme (NIS), they are told they are fit to work. When they get knocked off and are eating grass on the sideline, you cannot tell them that they and their family are entitled to free medical treatment. They are not getting the benefits they ought to get from this almost crippled national insurance where the money has been recklessly misspent in a Ponzi scheme. They do not benefit from that for all their years of hard work, sweat and blood in the sugar industry. Ask Komal Chand and he will tell you; he understands their misery. Yet they cannot ask for the medical treatment they are entitled to through the NIS; they do not get that. Workers come all the time and we write letters and letters to all the directors of NIS for people who wanted partial disability. They lived, complained and they died. That is all they get. They are never allowed, people who have asthma, who are almost blind, who have chronic back problems from fetching canes on their head... I speak for them because I came from the sugar belt and I know their misery! I know their disappointment! This is a people telling them, “You could postpone your misery. Let us take care of the elite and the have-beens, those who served us well.”
Full time personal security and services of the Presidential Guard Service at the place of residence: while we not disagree that former Presidents must have security - that is the right thing to do to protect your former Head of State - you should say how many security personnel they should have. You have to do a costing. You cannot say they should have two and they end up having twelve. One would want to know why twelve, what the former Heads of State would have done to require all of this armada by their side. We must be concerned that something is afoot that we have to provide a battalion to protect a former Head of State. This is, therefore, how it appears to the people out there. There are more questions than answers and we are leading them in a conundrum, trying to think that they are foolish. They are not like what one writer said, “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.” They are not the ones who we should think are mad. They understood this, but there are others who would stand here, like Sir Galahad or some other gladiator of Yore, to protect the ramparts. Even when the ramparts are broken and even when there is nothing to protect, we seem to be deploying our troops in the wrong direction.
Then there is the provision of motor vehicles owned and maintained by the State – motor vehicles owned and maintained by the State. We did not know how many motor vehicles we should be providing - ten, fifteen or twenty Prados, we do not know. Should we have the big one with the big wheels, the Hummer? Would it include that in the arsenal of vehicles? We do not know. This was the Bill that I said was indefensible. It did not need the Opposition to come to try to change this. Conscience would have dictated that this Bill is unacceptable, an assault on the integrity and conscience of the Guyanese people, and must go. That is why we said on the campaign trail that we will repeal it in its entirety, all the benefits, because the pension was enough to sustain a person who had served as Head of State.
Sir, I read, “an annual vacation allowance equivalent to the cost of two first-class return airfares, provided on the same basis as granted for serving Members of the Judiciary”. Well two first-class tickets, one might say that is okay, but we have the reputation here to be globe trotters anyhow. Some of us would probably be glad to travel on what is called the added mile. I would have liked to see an amendment on this Bill to say frequent flyer mileage should be handed into the State so that we could convert it and send some person abroad who needs an eye surgery. I saw in the newspaper the other day people opening up a hat in the public for US$15,000 to send a child abroad. They cannot find the air fare. We could give all these extra miles to the poor and the deprived and the people who are out there in misery. [Interruption] Some of us when you rule out the airline connections too, Sir -a tax exemption status identical to that enjoyed by a serving President.
We find that the effort at changing this law, repealing the benefits and replacing them with benefits that are more acceptable and within our means, to cap the benefit, we find that is a noble effort in the interest of the Guyanese people. So when we say here that $5,000 shall be given per month for water, electricity and telephone, we are just sending good signal to the Guyanese people that we understand in this country what is equitable justice, what is redistributive justice, that the little we have shall be distributed to as many as possible. If we have to start with our head as an example, then we shall start that way.
Your Honour, if I may just say this, when I was a Minister in that Government over there, I was the first who stood up to say that I did not want an increase in salary until nurses and civil servants were paid more. A committee was set up under Dr. Cheddi Jagan, and Mr. Clinton Collymore said, “boy, you don’t like money, why you do not give it to Dharam Sala?” They should know that I was the one who never accepted a government house when it was offered or not. Ask them! I never flew on a first-class ticket. Ask them. Never went into a hotel where the Government had to pay a five-star hotel or otherwise. I lived what Jagan used to teach us, that we were running a clean and lean Government. That was a man who had said – and he is there watching at us - he was talking about bringing Guyanese with ability and technical skill to work for $1 dollar a year. Have we forgotten the $1 a year call that Cheddi Jagan made? Why today are we putting him to shame? Why today are we so obsessed to abdicate every good thing he has done? And in his name we are claiming the obscenity of giving more to those who have and none to those who have not. What injustice is this? Where is the equity in this? And you call this vulgarity. This is, in a way, negative discrimination. It is good to discriminate in favour of those who do not have, but if you discriminate in favour of those who have, that is negative discrimination. And they are indicted for having a policy that is based on preferential treatment for some and denial of the little to the many.
Sir, what is wrong with an amendment to that that would say to a modern enlightened new law for Guyana in relation to the pension and benefit that the services of personal and household staff including a gardener, et cetera, three persons. You are not living in Black Bush polder where you have 15 acres or in MMA and you want to have a whole score of people to cut grass, weed the fields and reap the crops. You are talking here about recreational workers who would clean the pools and clear the flowers and the vineyard. This is what you are talking about. It is not workers that say “from the sweat of thy brow you shall eat bread”. They are deployed there because somebody requested that they need a set of gardeners, a set of cooks and a set of household staff – free cook. We have limited the clerical staff to three. This is fair, reasonable and equitable. We can talk about if this person is doing work for the government or not doing work for the government. That is a different matter.
They are deployed, as we see Former Presidents of the United States of America (USA) are deployed, as envoys to the Middle East, envoys to Asia; wherever there is a hot spot, Former Presidents are coming forward and doing duty for their people and their State. In that respect, I could imagine you would want to give them an airplane to take them where they have to go. Mr. Carter is all over the world doing good as a Former President with his foundation for humanity. [Mr. Ramjattan: The Carter Centre.] The Carter Centre. They are building houses for humanity; they are doing something that would give a hype to the nation they represent. So we have to make this qualification, whether one is going on a joy ride or one wants to do work for the government and the people. We would be able to decide how to cap what resources you have.
The free medical attention - what is wrong in trying first and foremost in seeing if the medical attention can be given in Guyana? We want to have confidence in our medical services and should give our own service a try first before we try to go somewhere else; like we should support our own local hotels before we start bringing the expatriates and multinationals to build hotels here. Charity begins at home. So why are we so concerned that the first port of call must be a country overseas. What if we end up with a president in El Futuro whose visa had been taken away? We have to look too in the future and then we have to be able to provide the best that is available locally and that is how you allocate the money with a practical view of what is possible and what is not possible. We are boasting here that we have the best facility and the best equipment. Just recently, we voted more money for equipment for a heart institute. Well, I think that is the No. 1 malady that can hit us. We are saying how we are going to have the best doctors here and still we are trying to legislate that it is “alright for you to go abroad, we are going to pay your Bill, free medical attention irrespective of where you go”. No, we should put the people’s money to work and show the result for what they invested in and not try to fob this off as if we are trying to prevent a Former President from having the best. The best should be available here and we should have it for all. So we feel that the intention here is good.
One may question the elegance of some provisions, but I say that elegance is not what this is all about. This has to do with practical issues of trying to carve a nation state within our means and trying to make policies and laws that would not mock at our people’s misery, but would show that we are passionate and committed to do the right thing; we are committed to frugality; we are committed to a policy that is so clear that other persons who would wish to be President may be discouraged from being President if only the obsession is how much money I get after I leave office.
We do not want to send the wrong signal to our young people. We must build a nation based on patriotism, commitment and struggle and sacrifice and we shall repudiate this notion that money solves every problem and that we should reward our Former Presidents just because they have done under their watch, a few good things. A few good things might have been done. We are not arguing that; that is not the reason for this debate. However, we are saying that whatever good you do, shall live after you. The Former President must be able to write books and live on the earnings of the books because they have to package and to sell and to boast. However, we cannot make a policy to give to some people who have nothing to boast and who have nothing to contribute in terms of enlightenment by producing a book for the world. We cannot do that. We cannot build our budget based on honorary doctorates and greatness that are counterfeited in a way not based on academic travail. We cannot do that. I support the Alliance for Change (AFC), we support this Bill with amendments. We welcome any amendments that would add clarity. As I am told the amendments have been circulated to include per month. I am not the mover, but I just say the amendments have been moved.
Sir, today it gives me great honour to recover some of the self esteem and dignity of this Parliament to know that we have to put our foot down on an obnoxious piece of legislation that would forever hold us in great esteem among the Guyanese people because we have gone out there not this time with a scissors to cut, we chop this down from the root. We are bringing something new that is acceptable and healthy. Thank you. [Applause]
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