In his November 9 letter titled ‘The entire parliamentary opposition voted against the Former Presidents Bill… 2009,’ Mr Christopher Ram has clearly shown I was quite wrong to characterize the opposition for being asleep at the wheel when this Bill came to Parliament. Indeed, when I went back to check, the Hansard – the parliamentary records – on this debate comes up to more than 90 pages.
The records show that Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh, who tabled the Bill, stated that he “believed that all of the members of the House [were] fully aware that almost all of the benefits that are articulated in the Bill are already provided to former Presidents.” However, Mr Winston Murray, speaking for the PNCR, challenged Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh, in the interest of the same transparency that the government claimed was the motivation for bringing the bill before the House, to therefore name former presidents who received the range of benefits enumerated in the Bill. Dr Ashni Singh did not (or could not?) respond.
Mr Winston Murray also criticized the Bill for being too general, and called clearly for caps on the benefits, drawing the House’s attention to the fact that the benefits to which former presidents would be entitled were all for an unspecified number. He also questioned the reasoning behind extending tax exempt privileges to any business income of former presidents.
If the government is so interested in transparency, why would it not ensure that the cost to the Guyanese taxpayers of footing this bill is clear and can be estimated in advance?
As Mr Ram’s letter states, the parliamentary opposition voted against the Bill, with Mr Khemraj Ramjattan memorably rebranding the PPP/C as the party of Perks, Privileges, Power and Corruption. Mr Everall Franklin, MP for the Guyana Action Party (GAP), who in his introductory remarks stated he rose to give support to the Bill, also ended up voting against it. The PPP/C and TUF voted in support of the Bill.
But since your readers have so far only seen what the opposition has said in parliament, people may feel that this is a one-sided representation of a debate in a House dominated by PPP/C members.
Therefore, let me share some of the opinions from those who rose to vote solidly in favour of this Bill. Speaking for the PPP/C, Mr. Odinga Lumumba argued that the Bill compared very favourably with what former presidents in Ghana received. Some of those benefits include:
1. Three chauffeured and fuelled saloon cars and three four-wheel drive cars, all with police escorts, as well as two months of overseas travel and comprehensive medical and dental treatment;
2. Two lavish residences, one in the capital Accra and one in a location of the ex-leader’s choice, will also be paid for, as will an office staffed with five assistants and extensive secretarial support.
3. A lump-sum payment of £285,000 is also payable on retirement, and a further £700,000 will be given to establish a charitable foundation in the ex-president’s name.
In support of his argument for this handsome handshake that former President Jagdeo will be the first to receive, Mr Lumumba cited John Tiah, MP for the ruling party in Ghana, who justified these benefits because “the tendency to hang onto power will be eradicated if presidents are assured of better living conditions after leaving office.“
Others who spoke out in support of the Bill for the PPP/C were Ashni Singh, Manzoor Nadir, and Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett, whose contribution included calling on the House to recognize that being a president requires 500% work.
Presumably, given the way the PPP/C members all rose in support of this Bill, a limitless pension is the least a nation that pays the rest of its pensioners the starvation amount of $7,500, can do to show our gratitude. Or perhaps $7,500 is all we can offer to ordinary pensioners, in order to afford this abusive Bill. The impoverishment of the many sustains the wealth of an arrogant few.
Perhaps since he will be the first to receive it, Mr Jagdeo should be asked to live on the fixed amount of $7,500 for two months. And then come back to tell us if it is fair that he should enjoy a pension at age 47 where the sky is the limit. Even his own administration cannot tell us how much it will cost.
In closing, one notes that Mr Ramotar has as recently as last week publicly declared that should the PPP/C win the November 28 elections, there will be a place for Mr. Jagdeo in his government. In the interest of transparency, one asks yet again, will Mr Jagdeo be allowed to keep his pension if he returns to public office in any capacity? If so, how do they justify it on moral and economic grounds?
Perhaps Mr Robert Persaud and Dr Prem Misir can answer this simple question. It is not a complicated one.