Mid Ocean News (10 June 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'
UGH, Mr. Editor, but agreeing with Government is like, well, working to a scoreless tie and a tie, like they say, is like kissing your sister. At least that’s the way it felt for this Opposition member when we found ourselves in agreement with the PLP Government on the proposed new mechanism for determining members’ salaries.
An amendment to the 1975 Ministers and Members of the Legislature (Salaries and Pensions) Act was the only major piece of legislation down for debate – not that there was much else in the way of Government business for MPs to work on in any event.
The objective here is to establish an independent panel to review salaries and make recommendations by the end of this year. The panel is obliged to take into account:
* the remuneration for legislators in other jurisdictions;
* rates of remuneration for senior civil servants;
* economic considerations; and
* any other factors which the Board considers appropriate.
I expect, Mr. Editor, that you get a sense from this as to what the direction the panel is being asked to explore.
The Man Who Led The Debate, a.k.a. the Man, spelled it out even more clearly for those who were listening.
“Bermuda is described as a wealthy country, if not one of the wealthiest in the world today”, remarked the Premier during his presentation, “but it is headed by one of the poorest Premiers”.
It may have sounded like it, but the Premier didn’t just make the pitch for himself. He invited people to look around the Chamber, i.e. at those seated in the House on the Hill.
“It’s no longer made up of people from the landed gentry who step off a yacht to come to the House”, he commented.
“Today”, he added, “most of them step out of small cars or off Mobylettes”. He didn’t mention Peugeots (automobiles or bikes, take your pick), but we knew he wasn’t talking about those of us who don’t sit around the Cabinet table.
So who are these people who are going to review and decide on appropriate salaries? We don’t know yet, Mr. Editor. The Premier has reserved to himself the power under the Act to make all the appointments. What we do know is that the legislation prescribes the sort of people who are meant to serve:
* A chartered accountant;
* A barrister or retired Judge;
* Two people nominated by the Opposition;
* A retired legislator; and
* Up to the three more people “who are suitable … due to their professional experience of qualifications”.
We can only wait to see who the eight are – assuming the amendment also finds favour with the Upper House down the Hill, a.k.a. the Senate.
IF it does turn out to be a panel of eight, Mr. Editor, you’d probably like to think any recommendations would – and should - come from a majority of members. It wasn’t going to be that way until the Opposition moved a couple of amendments.
The Amendment Act originally provided that:
* Three members would constitute a quorum; and
* A report of the Board could be signed off by the Chairman and two others (three).
The kissing continued when the Premier agreed with the Opposition without argument to changing the magic number in each case to four.
BUT it wasn’t all peaches and cream, Mr. Editor. Two other amendments put forward by the Opposition were rejected – with argument and a close vote. The first had to do with a distinction the PLP Government was proposing to make between full-time and part-time Cabinet Ministers. The panel will be required by the statute to recommend “salary scales for full-time and part-time Ministers”. There is no definition of either in the Amendment Act and consequently no one knows – except maybe those in Cabinet – precisely what is proposed or intended. Two classes of Ministers? Not just with different pay but with different obligations?
The answer was just as unclear – and we found support in the Government backbenches when a vote was called, although only one of them had the you-know-whats to cast their lot with the Opposition on a roll call, and She Need Not Be Named. It was lost 14 to 10.
But the party line held on the fourth and final proposed amendment. The amendment Act called for a review every two years by the salary review panel. The Opposition thought once every five years was just about right as that just about coincides with the life of each Parliament, thus ensuring that, to a certain extent, parliamentarians don’t just decide their own salaries but those of the next lot elected or appointed as the case may be.
In the meantime, what people should know, Mr. Editor, is that while the panel will be making salary recommendations, their recommendations do not automatically take effect. There’s been no change to the law which requires salaries to be approved by resolution of both the Lower and Upper Houses.
That’s when the real debate on salaries and salary increases will occur.
That word again
WILL the voters have a say, other than by way of the ballot? Hope so. There’s nothing in the legislation which requires the review panel to seek submissions from the general public, but on the other hand there’s nothing there to prevent it. The new law simply provides that “in the performance of its functions, the Board may inform itself in such manner as it thinks fit”.
Dare I say it, Mr. Editor, but there really is no harm in consultation ... with the people.
A deja view
PERSEVERANCE can some times pay off, Mr. Editor – assuming, of course, that the idea which you are pushing is a good one. My personal support of the independent panel review wasn’t so surprising in view of what I had to say over ten years ago, shortly after my first election to the House on the Hill. My baptism included appointment to a Select Committee of the House to review – yes, you guessed it - parliamentary salaries. It was a committee of seven and there was one majority report and two minority opinions. I penned one of the minority reports with Dame Pamela Gordon. This is what we wrote, in part: -
“One final word on the way in which Parliamentarians decide their salaries. Whilst we appreciate that the buck stops here in Parliament (no pun intended) we do believe that it would be helpful to have an evaluation performed by some recognised, independent body. If nothing else, it will serve to educate both members and the public on not only the work which Parliamentarians perform but the value of that work. We also believe that it will meet the concerns of the public and that is. That not only will fairness have been done, but fairness will have been seen to have been done.”
Now if only we can get the PLP to truly be progressive and see the light on the need for parliamentary reform.
TICKLISH though the subject might be, there were some lighter moments during the debate. Premier Scott insisted on telling us what he did the day before the debate on his day off. He made it sound awfully busy – and it included preparation for and attendance at a press conference, with the member responsible for housing, who need not be named anymore, on the meaning of the word “consultation”.
What the Man calls a day off, we regard as just another one of his many off days.
He also went on about the “love hate relationship” that seems to develop with voters.
“One minute they sing sweet hosannas”, remarked the Premier, “and the next minute they want to crucify you”.
“Don’t be discouraged Mr. Premier”, shouted out Neville Darrell from the Opposition benches, “Believe in the Resurrection”.
“Yes, that’s right”, smiled the Premier, “Joy will come in the morning”.
For some, Mr. Editor, not all the voters will decide.