What’s morality got to do with it? (Part II)

Contributed by Dr Thomas Singh, Lecturer in Economics at the University of Guyana

 

Last week we discussed briefly the Walter Rodney Commission of Inquiry, the Anti-Money Laundering Legislation and Local Government Elections as issues of morality for us as a nation. Today, we turn attention to the Budget Cuts, the Georgetown Town Clerk matter and the Berbice Bridge, again to look at the ethical issues.

 

20130521transparency4. The budget cuts: The Hon Chief Justice has ruled that the motions to cut the budget as proposed by the combined opposition in the National Assembly (or is it the Parliament?), were unconstitutional. There are two parts to Article 171 (2) of the Guyana Constitution and the Hon Chief Justice seemed to have based his decision on the second. Both parts of Article 171 are, however, prefaced by the same ‘excepting’ clause. Putting things together, this is how the constitutional basis of the decision by the Hon Chief Justice would seem to read:

“Except on the recommendation or with the consent of the Cabinet signified by a Minister, the National Assembly shall not proceed on any motion (including any amendment to a motion), the effect of which, in the opinion of the person presiding, would be to make provision for altering any charge upon the Consolidated Fund or any other public fund of Guyana otherwise than by reducing it.”

Whether the Hon Chief Justice was correct in his interpretationi of the Constitution, the ethical issue worth pondering is really whether the National Assembly has the legislative prerogative to limit public spending and by that token, to limit the size of government. If so, the judicial review of the legislative budget approval process, including the decision to cut public spending, cannot possibly be conducted in an ethical vacuum, as was done by the Hon Chief Justice.

Indeed, the constitutional challenges to and decisions about the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act of the US, even when addressing the separation of powers, affirmed the legislative authority to limit public spending, and even to set spending limits. In fact, the constitutional challenges had to do with “(1) improper delegation of legislative power and (2) delegation of legislative power to an improper delegate.”ii

So what does morality have to do with bigger and bigger budgets? A lot more than the Hon Chief Justice would have it, because greater public spending is associated with greater opportunities for corruption, rent-seeking, private sector crowding out, rising public debt, and all those things, including considerations of equity and intergenerational equity, that threaten individual rights and freedoms. To fail to even recognise this in a landmark decision is to thumb the judicial nose at us, the citizens.

 

5. The Georgetown Town Clerk business: The Hon Chief Justice made an interesting decision that deserves our attention: That Carol Sooba’s appointment as Town Clerk was illegal, but by his (the Hon CJ’s) deeming it so, her ‘authority’ as Town Clerk was intact and un-challengeable. Not much needs to be said of this ruling, except to reiterate that the law is empty – as empty as this decision – unless it is imbued with considerations of ethics; and without such considerations it will fail to secure and promote public order and social well-being. This is the litmus test of the ethical content of the decision of the Hon Chief Justice.

Clearly, from the chaos it has produced, the decision of the Hon Chief Justice, resting as it does on ethically dubious grounds, exhibits a remarkable lack of appreciation of the vitality and importance of morality in the administration of justice.

 

6. The Berbice Bridge: Monopolies are not usually regarded as morally deserving of the protection of the State – except in the case of the environment, where monopoly can be our ‘best friend.’ Indeed monopolies are usually associated with the restriction of output in order to charge higher monopoly prices; with inefficiencies, rent-seeking, inequity and inequality.

Imagine me, a citizen living in Berbice, wanting to freely travel to Georgetown, or vice versa, a citizen living in Georgetown wanting to travel freely to Berbice; but feeling my freedom curtailed by the ridiculously high toll at the Berbice Bridge. Suppose I were a farmer with produce to move to market, but facing a toll that makes it unprofitable to me to do so, deciding therefore to give up farming. I have never seen more than three vehicles at any one time using the Berbice Bridge, while the Demerara Harbour Bridge has users amounting to thousands of vehicles per day. For goodness sake, did you ever compare the traffic back-up at the two bridges when their retractable spans are open?!

On the other hand, think of the investors in the Berbice Bridge who enjoy their above-normal rate of return, guaranteed by the state in much the same way that the investors in the Amaila Falls Hydro Project would have wanted.iii We do not need to do a study of anything to know that more people would use the Berbice Bridge if the toll were lowered. But the investors, who on account of the limited use of the bridge now incur negligible maintenance costs, who do not have to employ a large management team and maintenance crew, and who do not have to monitor their performance – they simply would not like more people to use the bridge.

Maybe the National Assembly should not attempt to lower the toll, but should instead focus on either bringing the Berbice Bridge under the regulatory regime of the Public Utilities Act, or better, passing legislation that would outlaw (at least private) monopolies in water transportation. This would be the moral, ethical thing to do.

So what does morality have to do with it? Everything, if we want things to change, and to change for the better.

 

i The Hon. Chief Justice, it would appear, interpreted the words “otherwise than by reducing it” to mean “even in the case of reducing it.” Thus for the Hon. Chief Justice, the National Assembly must get Cabinet approval for a motion to reduce the estimates before it could proceed on the motion. As the opposition did not get Cabinet approval for its motion(s) to ‘cut the budget’ then the motion was, according to the Hon. CJ, unconstitutional.

ii “Some Reflections on Gramm-Rudman-Hollings,” by Gordon G. Young, Maryland Law Review, Vol. 45, Issue 1, 1986, Article 6, p. 8.

iii In similar vein, our commercial banks lazily earn income from Treasury Bills. Commercial banks’ non-tax operating expenses routinely and significantly exceed their interest expense!

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