Former Presidents (Benefits and Other Facilities) Bill 20123542 02 Aug, 2012
Minister of Finance [Dr. Singh]: I rise to make my contribution to the debate this evening on the motion moved by the Hon. Member Mr. Carl Greenidge, under the title “Former Presidents’ Pensions and Benefits.” Let me say at the onset of my contribution that I associate myself with all of the remarks made and contributions offered by my colleagues on this side of the House, which contributions have pointed to several compelling reasons why this honourable House should roundly and wholly reject this motion tonight.
The Hon. Member Dr. Rupert Roopnarine asked the question: Why did this issue become as contentious as it did? I do not believe that there is much denying that it did generate some amount of contentions. I will say this that the issue of former presidential benefits and pensions became as contentious, as it did, because of deliberate misrepresentation and distortion by those on the other side of the House. There is no doubt about this fact, and I will, during the course of my presentation, highlight the manner in which this matter was taken out of context; the manner in which the facts were deliberately manipulated; the manner in which innuendos were advanced in pretence of and in substitution of fact, all with the intention of scoring cheap political mileage.
Let us be clear that the Former President’s (Benefits and Other Facilities) Act 2009 was not a stand-alone piece of legislation. It in fact was a single instalment of a family of legislation, which family was brought to this House over the period 2009 to 2010 with a very clear intention, and that intention was to place into statute, to write into the statute books, benefits and facilities that were previously provided on a discretionary basis solely and purely by administrative fiat.
Let there be no doubt that former Presidents had, long before this 2009 Act came as a Bill to this House, for years, indeed, for decades, been in receipt of the benefits and facilities referred to in this Act. We all know of former Presidents who continued to receive, after they demitted the presidential office, security at their residence; who continued to receive the benefit of medical care and attention; who continued to receive the benefit of personal and household staff; who continued to receive the benefit of security and transportation and duty-free concession on vehicle. All of us in this House know of former Presidents who received those benefits on the basis of administrative fiat. All of us in this House know that long before the passage of the Leader of the Opposition Benefits and Facilities Act that the Leader of the Opposition, the Hon. Mr. Granger’s predecessor in office, received certain facilities by administrative fiat and with the latitude of administrative discretion.
Recognising the imperative of writing into the statute books - hitherto the only benefit that a former President was statutorily entitled to was his pension, his monetary pension - the benefits and facilities that had already been provided by administrative fiat, this PPP/Civic Government brought to this honourable House, not just the Former President’s (Benefits and Other Facilities) Act, but the Office of the Spouse of the President Act, 2009 also, removing from administrative fiat the provisions that would be made to a spouse of a President, in the case of a male President, a First Lady, and establishing an Office of the First Lady.
We brought to this honourable House in 2010, the Leader of the Opposition Benefits and Other Facilities Act; an Act that continues to be on the statute books; an Act that established statutorily the Office of the Leader of the Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition, of course, having been previously recognised in the Constitution, but there was no statutory basis for funding of that office and provision of certain financial and other support facilities.
This suite of legislation was brought to this honourable House during the period 2009 to 2010 in order to introduce into the statute books, to enshrine in law, greater transparency and accountability to the facilities that will be provided to this office. This piece of legislation… [Mr. Ramjattan: Mr. Murray made it.] In fact, Mr. Murray had welcomed this legislation and the Hansard reflects that. If the truth is to be told, this administration should have been commended for bringing these pieces of legislation and for writing in to law benefits and facilities that were previously being provided purely by discretionary administrative fiat and to bring certainty and predictability, to remove unpredictability, to eliminate the opportunity for capricious removal of benefits, to introduce some degree of certainty as to the expectations that could be had by the holders of these offices.
What instead we witnessed was what I will describe as a manufactured controversy.
Instead of recognising that these facilities have always been provided, solely because of the fact that an election was eminent, what we witnessed was a brazen attempt by selected Members of the Opposition to manufacture a controversy on this matter and to deliberately spin the facts to create a misleading impression solely for the purposes of political opportunism. Let us examine the statement made by, Kaieteur News, the Alliance For Change. What was the headline? It was “Jagdeo’s pension package is $3 million plus, more than we thought”. A statement made knowing full well that the pension was not $3 million, but seeking refuge in a deliberate obfuscation to stir public anxiety and public disapproval of this matter.
When one speaks of one’s salary or one’s pension, one does not add in the value of other benefits. If the Members want to speak of other benefits, speak of other benefits in totality, but in fact, repeatedly, the insinuation was made, particularly by the Members of the Alliance For Change, that somehow President Jagdeo would be receiving a pension in excess of $3 million, the misrepresentation to which I alluded to earlier.
Another release, “AFC says Jagdeo’s multimillion dollar pension will change and no deal without APNU.” Again, headlines and sound bites design for the purposes of political titillation. Kaieteur News, again, the 13th November, 2011, it was “Jagdeo’s pension twenty time Guyana’s income per head”. Kaieteur News, 4th November, 2011, “Jagdeo’s pension plan rattled my soul - said Moses Nagamootoo,” a man and a Member of this House who sat and voted in favour of this Bill and then conveniently heard the rattling of his soul upon his departure on that side of the House; a man who sat - it is recorded because this Bill was subject to a division in this House - in this House and voted for this Bill suddenly woke up and for political opportunism – I am speaking about the Hon. Member Mr. Moses Nagamootoo - conveniently discovered a rattling of his soul. I say that this matter, and particularly by the Alliance For Change, was a subject to deliberate misrepresentation and distortion, as I said, at the altar of political opportunism.
This misrepresentation has not stopped. Up to today I listened with astonishment at the Hon. Member Mr. Carl Greenidge, on citing examples to support his arguments, gave the example of Jamaica and sought to suggest that it had restrictions that required, I believe, the reference was to the period of service. Am I correct? In fact, not so long ago, just a few months ago, a huge debate raged in Jamaica about former Prime Minister Andrew Holness’s legal entitlement to a pension. I will read from the Jamaica Gleaner, “Andrew Holness’s legal entitlement to the same amount of pension as his much longer serving predecessors after serving a mere two months as Prime Minister has raised eyebrows.”
My point is that the fact of the matter is that Jamaica has a provision that states a Prime Minister who served for one day is entitled to a pension that is equal to the incumbent Prime Minister salary - one hundred per cent of the incumbent Prime Minister’s salary. It is a matter of public record in the Jamaica Gleaner and other Jamaican newspapers. Yet the Hon. Member Mr. Greenidge would come here and seek to have us believe - if the facts were not there to refute him, the record would reflect and the public might be inclined to believe - that somehow this imaginary restriction that he comes to this House and tells us about actually exists in Jamaica.The fact of the matter is that it does not.
Let us be clear that the insinuation that the presidential pension entitlement was somehow altered in 2009 is not an accurate assertion. The fact of the matter is that the basis for computing a presidential pension was actually set in the 2004 Act and that 2004 Act quiet clearly states the President’s pension shall be seventh-eight of the incumbent President’s salary. That was set in 2004. It was not in 2009. The insinuation in the months before the election and the insinuation even during the course of today’s debate is that somehow in 2009 the basis for computing the President’s pension was changed. That is not so. Let us be clear that this matter was the subject of a manufactured controversy. Recognising the fact, we had…
Mr. Speaker, I refer to the suite of legislation. I did not refer to the former President Hoyte’s Pension Act, but I will say this, and much ado was made about the circumstances of Mrs. Joyce Hoyte, that Ms. Hoyte found herself in the circumstances that she became a presidential widow before the passage of the 2004 Pensions (President) Act, as a result of which the entitlements of a person who becomes a presidential widow after 2004 would have been preferential compare to her benefits because she did not become a presidential widow, she had already been a presidential widow at the time when the 2004 enactment was made.
What did we do? The matter having been brought to our attention, we came to the National Assembly with a special Act called “The President Hoyte’s Pension Act”… [Hon. Members (Opposition): How long?] It was 2009… and remedied this matter to ensure that Ms. Hoyte would have received the same benefits that any other presidential widow would receive.
Mr. Speaker, make no mistake about it. The Hon. Members would have us believe that somehow this Government committed an injustice. They were sitting in this House. Did they ever attempt to bring a Private Members’ Bill to fix this matter? If they were so concerned, why did they not bring a Private Members’ Bill? As soon as the matter came to our attention we brought an Act to fix it. Had the PNC Members been genuinely concerned about Mrs. Hoyte’s circumstances they would have brought a Private Members’ Bill and they are still to explain why they never brought a Private Members’ Bill… [Interruption from the Opposition Members]
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members, one second…
Mrs. Lawrence: Mr. Speaker, I rise on a Point of Order. The former Leader of the Opposition began an engagement that was called a “constructive engagement” with the former President of this country at which discussions were made with regards to the pension for Ms. Hoyte. It is incorrect for the Minister of Finance to stand in this National Assembly and said that we, of the People’s National Congress, did nothing, for five years, when they failed to honour that agreement and five years after begging them to give her what was due to her. [Interruption] We ask him to withdraw that statement. Shame on you!
Mr. Speaker: Point of Order is becoming like speeches paradise. What I heard the Hon. Minister to be saying is that no Private Members’ Bill was brought to the House. That is a fact. It is also a fact that the matter was a subject of much discussion in political engagements, so both are factually correct, but indeed neither was a motion nor any Bill brought private, or otherwise, between the period 2002 and 2005.
Dr. Singh: Let us be clear that while this Former President’s (Benefits and Other Facilities) Act and indeed President’s pensions Act, might appear to be a generic issue that would affect all former Presidents, and indeed there are at least two former Presidents, including one in this honourable House. Let us be clear that much of this (I was referring, of course, to the person of the Hon. Prime Minister who is himself a distinguished former President.) that a lot of this manufactured controversy was manufactured with the aim of denying and denigrating the legacy of the People’s Progressive Party/Civic in Government and in particular the legacy of the Jagdeo’s presidency.
Let there be no doubt about this. This was an attempt to sully the tract record and reputation of a distinguished Guyanese son who rose to the highest office of this land, who emerged as Guyana’s longest serving Head of State and who served our country, our region and the global community with great distinction. If we are to speak of a political area of cooperation, collaboration of magnanimity, we must not be reluctant, we must not be shy of acknowledging those who have contributed to our country over the years, and to pretend that the Jagdeo’s legacy was not one that sought tremendous improvement in Guyana is in fact to be downright dishonest.
If one were to examine the legacy and the contribution made by former President Bharrat Jagdeo to this country, one would look at his distinguished tenure as a Minister of Finance which was followed by outstanding successive terms of office as President. One would witness in absolutely every sphere of national life the distinguished mark of former President Bharrat Jagdeo.
If we were to look at legislation, the Jagdeo presidency saw us emerge with a new constitution – the 2001 Constitution. We saw modern legislation in the financial sector. We saw modern legislation for protection of our people - women and children. We saw legislation to address accountability and better management of public resources. We saw dramatic improvements in the economy - reduction of our external debt from US$2 billion to US$1 billion. We saw the increase in our external reserves from less than US$25 million to more than US$800 million. We saw an economy that today is no longer vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a global economy that is no longer exposed to the volatility of a single commodity, an economy that can withstand external shocks and that has proven its resilience over the course of the last five years with uninterrupted growth in the face of the most hostile, external, economic environment. We saw dramatic improvements in our country’s infrastructure: new roads and bridges, highways, projects that have been the dreams of generations. Generations of Berbicians have dreamt of a Berbice River Bridge and the Bharrat Jagdeo presidency delivered that Bridge to them. Generations of Guyanese dreamt of a Bridge to Brazil and the Jagdeo presidency delivered the Takatu Bridge. Generations of Guyanese have seen the development of their natural resources stymied by pending unresolved frontier and border issues. The Jagdeo presidency saw the resolution of our maritime boundary with Suriname by an appeal to the United Nations International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. [Interruption]
Mr. Speaker: Allow the Minister to finish please.
Dr. Singh: We must not be shy as a nation to acknowledge these accomplishments. If we want to speak of a new political culture, pretending that these improvements did not happen is an inauspicious start to this new political culture that the Opposition would like to pretend that they are championing.
Let us speak of the social sector. There are new schools and hospitals in the Hinterland. One hundred thousand persons...
Mr. B. Williams: On a Point of Order, Mr. Speaker, Standing Order No. 41, the Hon. Minister is way out of line and he is totally speaking on matters unrelated to the business at hand. In fact, the entire tenure of the Hon. Member’s address is to incite the Hon. House into disorder because he is not sounding in truth in any way and [inaudible]. The Hon. Member has failed to address 40% poverty in this country.
Mr. Speaker: Hon Member Mr. Williams...
Mr. B. Williams: Corruption and violence... [Interruption]
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members, I will not allow this to be either a mini budget debate or a referendum on the Jagdeo presidency. Hon. Minister of Finance, you will restrict your comments to the motion at hand.
Dr. Singh: The point is made, Mr. Speaker, that this manufactured controversy is really intended to deny, like I said, the legacy of the Jagdeo presidency and to deny, in fact, the outstanding accomplishments of the People’s Progressive Party in Government over the years. But the people of Guyana will not be fooled. This manufactured controversy, notwithstanding, those improvements are there for all to see. [Mrs. Backer: Tell us about Varshanie too. Tell us about Varshanie and the marriage.]
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Member Mrs. Backer, allow the Minister to finish please. Let us not get into that. [Mrs. Backer: If he is talking, let him talk.]
Dr. Singh: When one arouses that kind of excitement on the other side of the House, he or she knows he is saying the right thing. They do not want to hear it. They want to deny the truth, but the people of Guyana will not be fooled.
If one examines this motion, the fact of the matter is that this motion is fundamentally flawed and should be rejected. The motion is ill-conceived and it is poorly constructed. It represents a blatant attempt to piggy back on this manufactured controversy, as I said.
The Hon. Attorney General has already made the point and I will repeat it only briefly for emphasis that if the intention is to amend any particular piece of this legislation or any particular piece of this set of Acts... Let us say, for example, if the intention is to amend the Former Presidents (Benefits and other Facilities) Act, then the appropriate instrument to effect that amendment would be a Bill brought to this National Assembly. If one were to peruse this motion... Let us examine it closely.
The motion is entitled “Former Presidents’ Pensions and Benefits”. The first Whereas Clause we do not have any problem with. The second Whereas Clause, I think, we do not have any problem with either. Let us examine the third Whereas Clause.
The third Whereas Clause refers solely to the provisions of the Former Presidents (Benefits and other Facilities) Act. It says that the provisions of the said Act have caused concern and so on and it refers to the ability of the country to sustain these benefits. It makes no reference, notwithstanding the title of the motion and notwithstanding the language of the motion which seeks to draw into the debate issues related to the presidential pension, to the Act that addresses presidential pensions. It only makes reference to the Act that addresses former presidents’ benefits and other facilities, without a doubt recognising that pensions cannot be adversely affected. I think Mr. Ramjattan has made that point. If that were the case, why introduce in the title former presidents’ pension? If you recognise, as you claim to do, that the pension is not an issue, why introduce it in the title of the motion? It is for the sole reason that mentioning pension is intended to cause public excitement because they want to make the misleading nexus between presidential pensions and old age pensions. Old age pensions are not a post-employment pension or a superannuation benefit. And so to draw that comparison is totally inappropriate. If the presidential pension is not a matter for contention, why include it here? Why include it in the title of the motion if it is not solely for the purposes of political excitement? Why include it in the second resolved clause? The deliberate allusion to presidential pension when my colleagues on that side have said the presidential pension would not be amended, the inclusion of presidential pensions in the title and the frequent references to presidential pension, is like I said earlier, solely for the purposes of stimulating political controversy.
Let us take the first Be It Resolved clause. The first Be It Resolved clause calls for the Former Presidents (Benefits and other Facilities) Act to be repealed. This is not how one goes about repealing an Act. If the desire was to repeal an Act, bring a Bill to repeal the Act - not include a Be It Resolved clause calling for the Assembly to repeal an Act. There is an appropriate means to repeal an Act and that is to bring a repeal Bill.
Let us take the second Be It Resolved clause. Although by title the motion purports to deal with presidential pensions, the second Be It Resolved clause refers to an Act that does not address presidential pensions. It refers to the Pensions (President, Parliamentary and Special Offices) Act but makes no reference to the 2004 Act, the Pensions President Act. If the intention is to review presidential pensions and benefits, how could one possibly exclude the Pensions President Act 2004? This is the Act that governs presidential pensions. This Act is completely excluded from here.
Once again, this motion has nothing to do with a genuine examination of this matter. This motion is opportunistic to capitalise on public debate and political contention on this matter as a result of a manufactured controversy. If one peruses this motion, it contains such fundamental flaws even if only its formulation that it is unworthy of passage in this honourable House.
As I conclude my contribution to this debate, I would say that the issue of presidential pensions and benefits was a controversy and continues to be a controversy that is manufactured by the Opposition. The rule that governs the presidential pension is a rule that has been in place since 2004 and President Jagdeo will not be the first former President to benefit from that rule. There have been former Presidents and there have been former presidential widows who have benefitted from the 2004 Act – the rule of 7/8. The presidential benefits contained in the Act of question are benefits that were provided by administrative fiat and we have now taken the transparent step of enshrining those benefits in statute and for that this Government is to be commended.
Despite the efforts by the Opposition to manufacture this controversy, the legacy of former President Bharrat Jagdeo is an outstanding legacy that for generations to come will be celebrated by the people of Guyana. And so I call on my colleagues in this House to roundly reject this motion - the treatment that it deserves. [Applause]
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