Nav­i­gat­ing the fault lines that de­ter­mine our po­lit­i­cal fate

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT - By Dr. Gale Rigob­ert

Over the past few days the public has been in­un­dated with com­pet­ing per­spec­tives on the con­stituency bound­aries re­align­ment is­sue. While many may ap­pre­ci­ate that the ex­er­cise is a con­sti­tu­tional re­quire­ment as spelt out in Chap­ter III Sec­tion 58 and Sched­ule 2 of the Saint Lu­cia Con­sti­tu­tion, Or­der 1978, a myr­iad of is­sues ul­ti­mately will de­ter­mine whether the rec­om­men­da­tions by the Con­stituency Bound­aries Com­mis­sion will be im­ple­mented.

As I sat in Par­lia­ment on Tues­day 10 Fe­bru­ary, I was treated to a par­tially con­cocted po­lit­i­cal cock­tail dis­pensed from within the ex­ist­ing con­stituency bound­aries. Anx­i­eties (not limited to those in the Cham­ber!) about pro­posed new bound­aries/con­stituen­cies, I am sure, had some froth­ing at the mouth, oth­ers sali­vat­ing and some (glued to their flat screen TVs and tablets) thrown in to a near drunken stu­por as to what that might mean for their own po­lit­i­cal bap­tism!

Back in the Cham­ber, the ar­tic­u­lated po­si­tions re­volved around the con­sti­tu­tional ne­ces­sity of the ex­er­cise; the sta­tis­ti­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the for­ma­tion of new con­stituen­cies; the im­pli­ca­tions for well-es­tab­lished MP– con­stituent re­la­tions and the psy­cho­log­i­cal (re)ad­just­ments that may be­come nec­es­sary; the evo­lu­tion of our po­lit­i­cal cul­ture and the ex­tent to which the emer­gence of new in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies (ICTs) - so­cial me­dia in par­tic­u­lar - may mean that the need “to touch flesh” as a core el­e­ment of representational pol­i­tics has be­come, or is fast

be­com­ing a thing of the past; and whether the po­lit­i­cal com­po­si­tion of the Com­mis­sion and re­source avail­abil­ity may very well be in­flu­en­tial fac­tors in de­ter­min­ing the tone and out­come of such ex­er­cises.

Notwith­stand­ing, the Min­is­ter for Fi­nance, by his own ad­mis­sion, in a pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tion in 2001 had ar­gued ve­he­mently against ef­forts to ad­just the bound­aries, con­tend­ing “any in­crease in the num­ber of con­stituen­cies has re­source im­pli­ca­tions – any in­crease!

In­ter­est­ingly, 14 years later, the Prime Min­is­ter on Tues­day 10 Fe­bru­ary, in a quest for ab­so­lu­tion, con­fessed “Hav­ing as­sessed the costs as­so­ci­ated with the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Com­mis­sion I am sat­is­fied that the con­cerns then may well have been ex­ag­ger­ated.” It is the public’s pre­rog­a­tive to grant for­give­ness! How­ever, this is yet an­other poignant re­minder that we can­not, as public of­fi­cials and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the peo­ple, al­ways be po­lit­i­cally con­ve­nient with the pos­tures we adopt.

The Prime Min­is­ter and Min­is­ter for Fi­nance in his pre­sen­ta­tion was very cal­cu­lat­ing, that in dis­cussing the fi­nan­cial im­pli­ca­tions of the in­crease from 17 to 21 seats, he chose al­most ex­clu­sively to fo­cus on the im­pact on the salary and wage bill of the Gov­ern­ment of Saint Lu­cia (with lit­tle to no dis­cus­sion on the other fis­cal im­pli­ca­tions!) In an ex­ten­sive pre­sen­ta­tion, Dr. Kenny D. An­thony con­cluded that the in­crease from 17 to 21 seats would mean that “The cost for each new con­stituency’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive is EC$89,440.92”. This trans­lated is a 12% in­crease of the cur­rent costs of Par­lia­men­tar­i­ans, or a 0.07% in­crease in to­tal re­cur­rent wages and salaries (page 26 of Dr. An­thony’s 10/02/2015 pre­sen­ta­tion) leav­ing lis­ten­ers/ view­ers to won­der whether the Gov­ern­ment has come into some rich in­her­i­tance and that EC$357,763.68 per an­num (and other hid­den costs) could be sourced rather eas­ily!

Cu­ri­ously though, were the is­sues that were NOT dis­cussed nor high­lighted as crit­i­cal? Of ut­most rel­e­vance in that re­gard was what will be the over­all fis­cal im­pli­ca­tions of mov­ing from 17 to 21 con­stituen­cies. There was a re­sound­ing si­lence on what it would mean, as well, for those agen­cies in­ti­mately in­volved in the elec­toral ad­min­is­tra­tion of this coun­try, such as the Elec­toral Of­fice. With the new con­stituen­cies, what will be the over­all run­ning cost of the Elec­toral Of­fice (in­clud­ing elec­tions) which may well ex­ceed an­other EC$1.5 mil­lion or so? In fact this may prove to be a very con­ser­va­tive fig­ure given the need for, among other things, new staff, ad­di­tional of­fice space, com­pre­hen­sive public ed­u­ca­tion on the pro­posed changes.

How then do we jus­tify and jux­ta­pose Gov­ern­ment’s calls for a 5% salary cut for public ser­vants, while at the same time pro­pose the for­ma­tion of new con­stituen­cies which can run into the mil­lions and cre­ate a sig­nif­i­cant dent on the public purse? The coun­try can ill af­ford a penny more at this time. Were that not the case, by now the new Den­nery and Vic­to­ria hos­pi­tals would have been out­fit­ted with a de­pend­able back-up power sup­ply, the St. Jude hos­pi­tal would have cleared its debts with its sup­pli­ers (fuel, nap­kins, toi­let pa­per), the Royal St. Lu­cia Po­lice Force would have re­sumed its re­cruit­ment drive, the Fire Ser­vice would have pro­cured ad­di­tional am­bu­lances, de­te­ri­o­rat­ing schools would have been ren­o­vated and there would be no need for a split-shift sys­tem, ter­mite-in­fested school fur­ni­ture would have been re­placed …

Oh, and there cer­tainly would have been no need to slash the school trans­porta­tion sub­sidy (throw­ing our kids to the road­side for prey­ing vul­tures to pounce on them!) Clearly there are more press­ing is­sues in the coun­try to which the Gov­ern­ment ought to give pri­or­ity at this time.

So, for the Min­is­ter re­spon­si­ble for Fi­nance to con­cen­trate al­most ex­clu­sively on wages and salaries, and to give the im­pres­sion that it is a mere 12% in­crease of cur­rent costs of Par­lia­men­tar­i­ans, is woe­fully ir­re­spon­si­ble and disin­gen­u­ous. This is es­pe­cially so against the back­drop of a de­te­ri­o­rat­ing fis­cal deficit, an in­creas­ingly fright­en­ing Debt to GDP ra­tio which has now ex­ceeded 80% de­plet­ing na­tional sav­ings, and three years of eco­nomic con­trac­tion with very lit­tle in­di­ca­tion of a po­ten­tial up­swing in the cur­rent eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion any time soon.

The un­spo­ken is­sues needed to form the crux of Tues­day’s de­bate: Should not the Gov­ern­ment have used the op­por­tu­nity to al­lay the anx­i­eties of tax­pay­ers who ul­ti­mately will bear the bur­den of the costs as­so­ci­ated with the ad­di­tional four seats? The Gov­ern­ment should by now be in a po­si­tion to ar­tic­u­late the fis­cal mea­sures it would be un­der­tak­ing to gen­er­ate the re­quired rev­enue to im­ple­ment the rec­om­mended ad­di­tional seats. The peo­ple can­not bear this ad­di­tional bur­den at this time.

But be­yond the fis­cal im­pli­ca­tions, there were other si­lent truths that were never heard, al­beit there might have been pass­ing ref­er­ences to the need to up­hold the prin­ci­ples of democ­racy and to congratulate our­selves for what were touted as her­culean ac­com­plish­ments in good gov­er­nance and bi­par­ti­san­ship! It would be fool­hardy of me (or any­one) to em­brace the ful­fill­ment of a con­sti­tu­tional re­quire­ment, as per Sec­tion 58 of our con­sti­tu­tion, as the sum to­tal of demo­cratic ma­tu­rity!

Let us re­mind our­selves that in our valiant quest to rein­vent the wheel, and to give full mean­ing to the core tenets of free and open democ­racy … as it per­tains to our elec­toral cul­ture, in this in­stance … that the sub­stan­tive con­clu­sions of two pre­vi­ously penned re­ports have failed to at­tract the leg­isla­tive at­ten­tion and merit they de­serve. The Fi­nal Re­port of the OAS Elec­toral Ob­ser­va­tion Mission for the Gen­eral Elec­tions in Saint Lu­cia, Novem­ber 2011, made rec­om­men­da­tions, among them the need to es­tab­lish the Com­mis­sion on Elec­toral Bound­aries to de­fine a more eq­ui­table di­vi­sion of con­stituen­cies (page 28). But there are far more ex­ten­sive pre­scrip­tions which can go a long way in strength­en­ing and sus­tain­ing our fledg­ling democ­racy.

Of even greater con­cern are the rec­om­men­da­tions of a 1998 Saint Lu­cia Con­stituency Bound­aries Com­mis­sion As­sign­ment, done by the Com­mon­wealth sec­re­tariat, at the be­hest of the then Prime Min­is­ter, Kenny D. An­thony, with the ex­plicit aim of “main­tain­ing the in­tegrity and trans­parency of the elec­toral process”. Surely, shelv­ing the re­port does lit­tle to achieve this, if the pre­scrip­tions are never ad­min­is­tered to the ail­ing pa­tient!

Be­yond the ac­ri­mony of par­ti­san pol­i­tics, lies fer­tile ground for the com­pre­hen­sive ex­am­i­na­tion and healthy dis­course on the con­tents of both re­ports, as we de­mar­cate the fault lines that can ul­ti­mately de­ter­mine our po­lit­i­cal fate! by Dr. Gale Rigob­ert Leader of the Op­pois­tion and MP for Mi­coud North.

Prime min­is­ter Dr. Kenny An­thony de­bat­ing the rec­om­men­da­tions by the Con­stituency Bound­aries

Com­mis­sion in the House on Tues­day.

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