We have now entered the month of October a month though fraught with climatic dangers for us, is still the month of very significant events for Vincentians, here and abroad. After all, it is the month during which significant constitutional advances were made for us, Associate Statehood and National Independence which we will celebrate on October 27. But as we so commemorate these advances, we must never forget that they, together with Adult Suffrage, giving us the right to vote, came as a result of the challenge that ordinary people of this country, from town and country, posed to British colonialism and the plantocracy on October 21, 1935.
As is expected of me, my national duty, I will of course comment on the significance of these events, welcoming the semi-official recognition of the 1935 events as a further advance in our decolonization march. However, lest we forget the significance of the moment, permit me to focus this week on a discussion that took place in the House of Assembly on Tuesday of this week.
The discussion, for it was not the typical partisan debate, was around the issue of a Bill put forward by Prime Minister Gonsalves to amend current provisions for pensions for members of the House of Assembly. It was a discussion long overdue in the place of which we sometimes had whining complaints from Parliamentarians relating to issues such as allowances for MPs in order to be able to fulfil constituency responsibilities.
It was clear that there needed to be a frank and open discussion on this and the wider issue (hush, hush) of salaries, pensions and related issues for Parliamentarians. The elephant in the room however blocking such an open discussion was partisan politics and the degree to which it has deteriorated, almost scaring each side to dare to be an advocate for better working conditions for the very people whose job it is to ensure that those improvements are made for the populace as a whole.
The problem became, “Who will bell the cat? Who will let the proverbial genie out of the bottle? Who will sum up the courage to lay the cards on the table, and be advocate for the “hapless” MPs?
Prime Minister Gonsalves, in advancing the motion and making a case for the deserved revision of the pension provisions, had indicated that he was aware of the wider problem, but he was not prepared to take the lead in having it addressed. It is the second major issue on which our PM has publicly balked at taking the lead, constitutional decolonization being the other, following his chastening defeat in the 2009 referendum.
So, HATS OFF! to East Kingstown MP and Vice President of the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), Hon. St. Clair Leacock, for having the courage to lay the cards on the table. It is not the first time that he has raised related issues in the House, but this was his most comprehensive and compelling argument so far, laying it bare, even risking the ire of those among us who believe that MPs are a privileged group who should never complain about such issues.
PM Gonsalves himself had admitted to the imbalances where some public servants, following the last reclassification exercise, ended up much better paid than their Ministers. But it was Leacock who put it all on the line, dispelling the myth among all too many of us that MPs were well-paid and privileged. A clearer case for having these gross anomalies addressed could not be made and I for one, look forward to Parliament boldly taking up the case.
The problem lies in the opportunism with which politics is regarded locally. The last time that Parliament attempted to increase benefits for MPs, more than two decades ago, the parliamentary Bill came to be labelled locally as the “Greedy Bill”. This was because of the context, the government of the day denying public servants deserved increases while advancing proposals for improved emoluments for parliamentarians and even spouses.
In addition, over the years, politicians from both sides have mollycoddled citizens to the extent that they dip into not so deep pockets to try and meet almost every demand from members of the public. It is tantamount to encouraging parasitism and political blackmail. No wonder many citizens who can make worthy contributions in parliament are unwilling to step forward!
It is time we stop fooling ourselves and have the courage to face the facts. We have encouraged citizens to the extent that the level of respect for the holders of such an important office as a Parliamentary representative has “gone to the dogs”. Just reflect on the treatment handed out to the highest office holder, the Prime Minister himself, when not only was he accosted by a mob, not only did someone “buss his head”, but the response of some who should set an example, indicated that they themselves did not understand nor appreciate the importance of respect for holders of such high public office.
We have a situation where MPs are almost afraid to put forward their deserved case for fear of public reprimand. If the PM does not want to lead on this, for whatever reason, then someone else among his senior colleagues must do so. Not that I agree with the PM’s position, but we must make a move forward. We must stop pandering to political tribalism and backwardness and lift our game.
Thank you, Mr. Leacock for being frank on the issues. Let us take it from there.
- Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.