Pension for politicians, for what service they do to the country? BY Dr. Sudath Gunasekara

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Members of Parliament (MP) have to serve 10 years hereafter to qualify for pension as opposed to five years at present. (2022 Budget speech)

While welcoming that policy decision of the Government, who can say that this is not another election ‘gundu’ to deceive the people aimed at the proposed Provincial Council Elections? If the Government was really honest and concerned about public good, what it should do is to abolish this joke immediately, particularly in view of the present hard times the country has fallen on, as Canada had done in 1995, without continuing an unwanted bonanza to trap politicians cunningly, used as a bait by party leaders, that bleed the nation.

The Mike Harris government eliminated MPPs’ pension plans following the 1995 provincial election. Even if it is allowed in exceptional cases like in Canada, a pension to a politician should be paid only after 65 years, in recognition of his or her distinguished service to the nation when they are disabled, to earn a living.

Why pay pensions to politicians at all, who volunteer and swear to serve the people at elections and on the contrary rob and destroy the entire nation after they come to power. It is to hoodwink.

Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa in his Budget (2022) speech has proposed that MPs be eligible for a pension only after completing 10 years of continuous ‘service’. This too in my view is not warranted and justified at all, particularly in this country, where they come into politics for power and amass wealth and rob public assets and money in unethical ways. They don’t even declare their assets before nomination or even afterwards, deliberately, to enable themselves to justify their illegal earnings if someone questions their assets afterwards. What is more ludicrous is their claim to a pension, despite the enormous financial benefits and privileges afforded from the day they are elected, compared to what politicians in pre 70s got. For example, an MP those days got only an allowance of 500 rupees, a Junior Minister Rs 750 and a Minister Rs 1,000 a month. They were also not allocated official vehicles, duty-free vehicle permits, official residences in Colombo, other payments like sitting allowances or any other allowance or other perks like special allocations for seats, (in spite of the fact that none of these people have an electorate as they are only District MPs, which has made representative democracy a big farce).

My question is, under these circumstances, why pay a pension at all to any politician in this country. Because paying a pension to any politician is contrary to all basic principles, related to paying pensions, accepted all over the world. Because, originally people over 70 were paid a pension, who were unable to make a living, as a mark of gratitude for the continued and devoted service they rendered to the nation or a certain company. Those days it was public service and not self-service, as it is today.

The man behind the initiative called ‘The Old Age and Disability Bill’ was Otto von Bismarck of the German Empire. Germany was thus the first European country to establish a fully-fledged pensions scheme for workers aged 70 or above. The limit was lowered to 65 in June 1916.

In 1875, The American Express Co. created the first private pension plan in the US for the elderly and workers with disabilities. Early pension benefits were designed to pay out a relatively low percentage of the employee’s pay at retirement and were not designed to replace the employee’s full final income.

In Sri Lanka it was started by the colonial Government for the benefit of its aged employees, for the dedicated service they had rendered to the Empire. Subsequently it was extended to retired public servants who had completed 35 years of satisfactory service in public service. As such it was justifiable, as the only income of a man or a woman, who has devoted years in service to the nation, debarring any other job while one is engaged in public service, comes to an end the day he or she retires. But it should be noted that, to get that benefit they had to contribute a certain percentage monthly from their salary to which the Government contributed a certain percentage. Therefore, in fact, they are paid from a reserve fund maintained by the Government out of funds they have contributed throughout their service. What is more is that they have to complete 35 years of service to qualify for the pension. When someone retires prematurely the pension is frozen until he or she reaches the age of 55. This clearly shows that there is a very sound rationale behind paying a pension to a retired public servant and it is fully justified both rationally and ethically.

Now let us examine the rationale behind paying a pension to a politician in this country. Paying pensions to politicians started in 1977 by the JR Jayewardene Government. Curiously it was the first legal enactment of that so-called Democratic Socialist Government of JR, passed as a matter of priority, as if it was the most burning ‘public issue’ his government had to solve. Does this not show the degree of concern and commitment our politicians had towards the welfare of the people who elevated them to high positions by electing them with a 5/6th majority in 1977, hoping to get a better deal than from the previous government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

What is hilarious and despicable is that this piece of legislation marked the turning point in Sri Lankan political culture, when the interests of the politicians overtook those of the people in a country that inherited a rich legacy of public good enshrined in the Buddhist concept ‘Bahujana hitaya bahujana sukhaya’ (for the good of the many and for their happiness at large).

What is even more despicable is that it was awarded to all politicians who completed five years ‘service’ irrespective of whether they served the people or not. What was ludicrous was the payment of the pension to his or her spouse after the death of the MP. Further his family would get another pension or even more if his or her son or daughter had been appointed as the Private Secretary, Public Relations Officer or such, which has now become the norm, a tradition that had come to stay as a political privilege. Payment of pensions under this scheme was made with retrospective effect and it was payable even to politicians who served in the State Council, if they were living at that time, with arrears.

Only one man refused to accept this blood money, in the history of Parliament. He returned it to the Speaker. The man mentioned here was my good friend M.S. Themis, the third MP for Colombo Central in 1956. He was the first person and perhaps the only man to return it. I know it for certain as I was the one who prepared the cover letter to the Speaker.

This piece of legislation was also a complete violation of the Pension minute which nobody dared to challenge or even question up to date either in a court of law or Parliament, said to be the Supreme law-making body of the country.

 

Isn’t it interesting to note how our lawmakers make laws and for whose benefit they make them in this so-called supreme legislature of the country, expected to make laws for good governance for the good of the people and the good of the country at large?

JR did not stop at that. He did everything to enhance the fabulous benefit package to MPs with immediate effect. He dramatically increased salaries, increased the sitting allowance and official vehicles and duty-free vehicle permits were also provided, which they could sell in the open market and make a fabulous fortune. Official quarters in Colombo were also provided, whereas they had to be in Colombo only for eight days a month. Unlimited job permits for MPs to provide employment to their party supporters, monopoly of tavern licence, business permits and government contracts, nationalisation of land for a song, by Mrs B, through the establishment of Land Reform Commission (LRC); and government import permits; the sky was the limit to such privileges. Here I stop the list for brevity and lack of space. All this was done to buy over the MPs, to maintain the majority in Parliament, to embellish and consolidate JR’s dictatorial position as the Executive President which perhaps he thought was a lifetime job, but unfortunately not.

The same corrupt highway robbery still continues at increasing rates without being openly questioned or challenged by anyone in the ‘People’s Parliament’. So much so today the whole system of governance in this country has become a veritable national liability.

JR also increased the number of MPs in Parliament from 196 to 225 by introducing the National list, to provide a place in Parliament for their kith and kin and family friends, as backdoor MPs, bypassing elections, making Representative Parliament ‘Non-representative’, thereby rendering representative democracy a hilarious joke. Had it been reduced to the previous number, it would have saved billions for national development and reduced IMF and other foreign loan repayment burdens, thereby reducing the annual budget deficit and avoiding bankruptcy.

On top of this, JR also signed an agreement with Rajiv Gandhi, handing over the North and East, comprising 1/3 of the land of the country and 2/3 of the coastal belt, together with its maritime territory, as the Traditional Historical Homeland of the Tamil people.

What is more depressing is that this provincial council system has already wasted trillions of public funds for the upkeep of these superfluous new political establishments at no benefit to the country but only to the politicians, from 1987 to date. It is said that 85 percent of the national tax collection is spent on the upkeep of politicians and so-called public officials in this country, leaving only 15 percent to do everything else for over 21 million citizens. Meanwhile, lawlessness, corruption and international debt to the tune of US $ 56 billion, drags the country to the bottom of abject poverty and bankruptcy, forcing this once proud nation and second richest country in Asia, second only to Japan by 1948, to seek loans even from Bangladesh and Maldives.

This is the pathetic situation in to which this proud and rich nation, which gave Sterling loans even to the British Empire in the early 1950s, has been thrust, by our politicians who are supposed to have ruled this nation from 1948 up to date, a land further devastated by separatists Tamils and Muslims with their Tamil and Muslim dreamlands.

It is this kind of politicians, who have robbed the nation blind and continue to do so, who are responsible for making this country debt-ridden, while these parasitic and good-for-nothing governments continue to give fat pensions to MPs, extracting from the beggar’s bowl.

Against this backdrop, I strongly oppose a single cent being given to any politician, as a pension. In addition, I also suggest that all extraordinary benefits such as palatial official residences, official vehicles, security details and other benefits be withdrawn forthwith before the masses march in thousands and forcibly take over all these public assets as protest against what they have done to this country and the Sinhala nation over the past 73 years.

This includes all politicians including ex-Presidents and their rich widows. However, I am not against paying a pension to an honest politician like C.W.W Kannangara who devoted his entire life in service to the people and the country and who had done an indelible and memorable service to the nation, after passing a resolution in Parliament to that effect. That will definitely prevent self-seeking, wealth-mongering people in politics from receiving the pension, limiting it to men and women of outstanding character, dignity and commitment to the service of people, the noble vow of any honest politician.

Finally I propose first, the immediate abolition of the pension scheme to all politicians and second, appointment of a powerful Presidential or Public Commission to enquire into the illegal earnings of all politicians at all levels starting from 1977 up to date and confiscation of all assets proven illegal, both at home and abroad, such as ‘Pandora assets’. I propose that all that wealth be credited to the General Treasury Account so that people will get back all the wealth robbed by politicians at least from 1977 onwards, so that all those who aspire to be politicians in future will begin with a new political vision, opening the doors to a new political culture, setting a Sri Lankan model for the entire world and once again restore the ancient glory of the Sinhala nation.

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Disclaimer: Pension for politicians, for what service they do to the country? BY Dr. Sudath Gunasekara - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view

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