IT is amazing how flippant some people are with money when they know it isn’t coming from their wallet. Our nation’s parliamentarians have never had it so good so long as they don’t have to slap their own leather billfolds to pay for their obscene extravagances. Meaning they have no qualms about hopping aboard the ‘gravy train’ at the expense of the taxpayer.
During the last landmark election the present administration, the ‘Unholy Alliance’ promised good governance, implying values such as accountability, transparency, inclusiveness and participation. But once safely ensconced in government they are anything but accountable and transparent. They also promised us zero tolerance of corruption – another electoral pledge that was compromised at birth like so many others that have served the Alliance to lose its credibility and soul and take it back to the days when lingering lies and dishonesty were not only rampant but also institutionalised.
In fact, our politicians over the last four decades or so have disagreed on most everything. Everything that is, except when it comes to ladling out the biggest share of the nation’s wealth to themselves. At that crucial juncture they all agree to vote in accord to give themselves too much of everything. At every level of governance, money, pay-rises and perks have become the voice with the strongest resonance, the friend with the greatest benefit and the focus of every politician who deals in such damnable deceit.
Politics in Sri Lanka often hides behind the veil of economic discourse. Underneath the mask is the unmitigated pursuit of self-interest, the maximisation of personal gain. Historically, the power of might gave one the right to take what one wants with impunity. In some so- called democracies such as ours, unfortunately it is still the case.
Yet, one would have thought that with the world only a mouse-click away, the era of stealing, arrogance, lying and instability would have been jettisoned. The times have been redolent with the unhappy illustration of the bounty bequeathed on many of these low-profile personages who are a millstone around our nation’s neck.
It is patently clear that there is little or no accountability in stewardship. Everyone is aware that corruption and the criminalisation of politics have reached unprecedented levels. This has been clearly endorsed by the COPE reports spelling out how public funds are being squandered by several government parliamentarians and their lackeys.
There are two issues here that smack of total temerity and barefaced impunity. First, the practice of MPs deciding on their own pay hikes and privileges is a glaring conflict of interest. Second, for the sake of accountability, MPs’ salaries need to be in sync with their output. At a time when Parliament gets disrupted frequently and very little legislative work gets done, MPs can’t keep gifting themselves massive pay hikes and perquisites.
A good way to go would be to index their salary hikes to GDP growth. This way, they would be forced to work harder for economic growth instead of delinking themselves from the economy and the general fate of the country, like feudal princes or piratical freebooters on the Spanish Main. Especially at a time when large parts of the country are reeling from a blistering drought and another national disaster in which so many lives were buried under a collapsed mountain of stinking garbage, this is an appalling signal to send out.
Imagine their perquisites, fat salaries and colossal allowances, so that they can live in blissful splendour while hopping aboard the legislative ‘Gravy Train’. And to cap it all they have given themselves an entitlement to a full pension after only five years in office. To add further to the shameful abuse of perks MPs have now been officially allowed to sell their duty-free vehicle import permits which they get once in five years. They could earn as much as 30 million rupees from such a sale accumulating profitably to their overloaded list of benefits and privileges at public expense. Is this not tantamount to legitimised daylight robbery of public funds where tax revenue is being blatantly defrauded?
The failure by government to curb excessive spending was made more damning after a clutch of both government and opposition spokesmen justified the move to seek Parliamentary approval to purchase luxury vehicles to various State and Cabinet Ministers and said that Ministers need super luxury vehicles to travel to their electorates and attend various functions.
Many analysts would agree to disagree in the wake of such apologist statements. The term luxury suggests a vehicle with higher quality equipment, better performance, more precise construction, comfort, higher design, technologically innovative modern, or features that convey an image, brand, status, or prestige, or any other ‘discretionary’ feature or combination of them. The term is also broad, highly variable and relative. It is a perceptual, conditional and subjective attribute that may be comprehended differently by different people. That is because what may be luxury for one may be premium for another.
Surely there are so many four-wheel drive and all terrain vehicles available at a fraction of the cost that provide adequate safety and comfort. But these don’t appear good enough for some of our spoiled legislators who appear bent on picking the most exotic and highest priced sedans on the market – and to hell with the cost!
Let’s be honest about the whole issue. Over the last few years our ‘slobby’ ministerial enclaves have become nothing short of obscene. And just imagine their perks! The staff, the bodyguards, the luxury cars, the first-class flights, the gourmet food, the lavish office refurbishments and the five-star hotel stays. Yes it amounts to all status, no substance and at a cost of billions of bucks.
Has the Alliance not learnt the lesson that these are largely the reasons why complacent governments are often voted out of power by an overburdened populace who cannot be taken in all the time by cheap lies and duplicity. Unfortunately the voters have very little choice between our two major parties that have been holding sway since independence.
But the result of the change is a precariously nauseating arrangement. It is a squalid system where successive governments for the past four decades or so have all been chipping away at the institutional checks and balances which are supposed to shackle the elected servants of the people to the will of the real sovereign – which in case they have failed to remember – is the voting public.
Don’t forget that the voting public striving frantically to keep its head above the inflationary tide is becoming a dangerously angry and hungry entity. The public can smell hypocrisy at 50 paces. It erodes the confidence in – and the authority of – government. And when people become disengaged it usually means electoral extinction for any greedy and complacent administration.