By Upatissa Pethiyagoda –
All Public Service appointees have a retirement age (50, 55 or 60) years – Politicians do not. This is anomalous and leads to several negative consequences. With the recent doubling of the numbers elected to Local Bodies from 4,000 to 8,000, along with 225 in the Parliament and heavy increases in emoluments and perks, together constitute a massive drain on the national exchequer. It also has other implications.
Why is there a retirement age?
The biological reason is clear. With advancing age, a person’s capacity, efficiency and cognitive ability declines – the “best before” date is a valid reality. Since a politician has more impact than that of a Clerk, it is reasonable to expect the former to have a lower retirement age than a clerk, driver or peon. The assumption that experience offsets the decline with age is demonstrably false. What is true for the Politician must also be so for the clerk or driver.
A retirement benefit represents gratitude for services rendered and provision for sustenance at an appropriate level. The present vast differences between retirement benefits for politicians against others, is reason for widespread envy and anger. Politicians qualify for lifelong pensions after just five years of service (equal to a single term), while the corresponding requirement for others is some thirty or twenty (?) years. One must remember that stringent qualifications for entry into public service contrast with none for those entering politics at any level. This is plainly iniquitous.
It is seen that from the date of entry, the great objective in the politician’s mind is to retain this most rewarded and the least demanding, of vocations. Obviously, (with few exceptions), it is natural that the urge to retain position is the paramount instinct. As a friend once remarked, our “Nation can be compared to a milch cow. Each politician gets hold of a teat and sucks vigorously. There is nobody to feed and bathe the cow”. Such an animal steadily declines and suffers a painful death!
Much is said about the much delayed elections to Provincial councils. This is touted as a serious denial of the People’s Franchise. To me, it illustrates that the country seems to fare as well without them, as it does with them. Almost every News Bulletin on TV shows neglected roads, ill-maintained irrigation channels, lack of water and toilet facilities, dilapidated bridges, ill-equipped schools and hospitals, garbage heaps, illicit tree-fellings, sand mining and many such other factors that were the very significant issues that were cited as the justification for the creation of these local level political bodies. Apart from increasing the parasitic load, what have these grand symbols of devolution, decentralization and subsidiarity done for us?
Choice as Democracy
It is claimed that “Policy Differences” justify the existence of many parties. Can any example be offered of such glaring differences between the major ones – the UNP and the SLFP, that justify their identities? If there were, how do these seamless and commonplace cross-overs occur?
As long as Selection Committees (or Party Chiefs) determine candidacies, and the Party Whip operates, there can be no true choice for the voters. Exhortations to pick only quality candidates to represent them, is nothing more than a cruel joke. What is the point of choosing the best, when all they have to do is to raise their hands on party command? True democracy should at least permit a secret ballot. Parliamentary debate should not be a ritual but should provide help in reaching informed decisions. If not, what is the point?
A Cycle of Evil
There is near unanimity that political office has become an expensive carbuncle. The causal circle is as follows: the rewards of politics are absurdly high and do not offer comparison with output, integrity or societal value. When this is so, there is irresistible desire to get elected. The least principled, most wealthy and criminally inclined (drug lords, bootleggers and thugs) will be attracted as a means of avoiding prosecution and concealing ill-gotten wealth. Morals, merit and integrity become irrelevant. Brutal violence and even murder of potential rivals become real. As nomination is in the hands of a few Party Officials, every effort is made to influence them. This being the reality, it is cruel cynicism that the blame is placed at the door of the electors of such undesirables. They truly have no choice but perhaps to select the “least worse” from the poor options open to them. Progressive deterioration of quality and useful talent is snuffed out. The only avenue for quality material through the “Nominated Members” is grossly abused. Thus, the electoral process and the Party Whip precludes the true exercise of the peoples’ franchise.
The past few weeks demonstrate the total depravity of our Parliamentary system. The obsession with the “numbers game” illustrates the total substitution of the pretext of concerns and hopes of the people by naked and disgraceful personal ambitions. The chatter about the inducements (often claimed to be in the hundreds of millions), destroys any semblance of respect for our “honourable” representatives. No sense of hope and dignity can obscure the revulsion and disgust at the departure from decency that we seem destined to suffer. We are a failure in the “Good Governance” slogan so often and so loudly touted.
While lamenting the paucity of talent in the elected assemblies, the responsibilities are unrealistic. Witness the number of matters that are “referred to Cabinet or Cabinet Sub-Committees” and the huge piles of documents that are presented to each of these bodies. It would be a miracle to expect them to pay close and critical attention. It is probable that this simply cannot happen. Tabling is no guarantee of critical evaluation, leaving aside even being read. The study of the voluminous (more than one thousand pages) of the Presidential Commission to study the “Bond Scam” was laughably and typically delayed until the Tamil and Sinhala translations were made available to all Members of Parliament ! One can be assured that thousands of pages were not even thumbed through. The tonnage of paper used in these formal procedures would be enlightening.
A toxic contagion
Hardly a day passes without disclosure of a new scandal. Some are so well known that they cause no surprise. What troubles one is the element of betrayal, when those in whom one reposed much confidence and expected much better, stand accused. Hopefully not “Unuth ekai, Munuth ekai”
What can be done?
In a serious insult to our collective intelligence, it has been argued that Bribery and Rip-offs by elected members can be reduced by lavish rewards. This is palpably false. Quite apart from reducing criminal acquisition of wealth, it has merely whetted the appetite of the venal. Absurd allowances, permitted abuse of vehicle permits, bribes and commissions, false expenditure claims and abuse of privileges such as limitless foreign jaunts are silently tolerated. We are told that electioneering is so expensive that means of recouping the outlay, by means fair or foul are inevitable! Simple means of compelling disclosure of electoral expenses, of assets and other indicators of graft will never be done. Small wonder that persons of integrity or talent, will never desire to enter what has become a corrupt conglomerate. Thus, reduction of the spoils of office is paramount. Means of doing so will occur to the meanest intellect.
Political rewards for services rendered are indefensible. Evil will continue to feed on evil. Poor attention to duty is commonplace. Frequent lack of Parliamentary quorum is explained by “When the Minister returns from abroad” suggesting that our Legislators are busy devoting their talents to address other peoples’ problems, neglecting our own. Respectable Agencies committed to rationalizing official travel, requires every traveler on overseas missions to provide a “Back to station Report” sufficient to justify the expenses incurred. It is absolutely vital to reduce useless or inessential travel, Parliament may consider installing a well-appointed “Flight Simulator” with free Liquor, Meals and Hostess service to economize on less than useful air travel.
One could expand the list with many more absurdities – but Editorial restraints and “Reader Fatigue” compels me to end here.