Over the past few days the public has been inundated with competing perspectives on the constituency boundaries realignment issue. While many may appreciate that the exercise is a constitutional requirement as spelt out in Chapter III Section 58 and Schedule 2 of the Saint Lucia Constitution, Order 1978, a myriad of issues ultimately will determine whether the recommendations by the Constituency Boundaries Commission will be implemented.
As I sat in Parliament on Tuesday 10 February, I was treated to a partially concocted political cocktail dispensed from within the existing constituency boundaries. Anxieties (not limited to those in the Chamber!) about proposed new boundaries/constituencies, I am sure, had some frothing at the mouth, others salivating and some (glued to their flat screen TVs and tablets) thrown in to a near drunken stupor as to what that might mean for their own political baptism!
Back in the Chamber, the articulated positions revolved around the constitutional necessity of the exercise; the statistical justification for the formation of new constituencies; the implications for well-established MP–constituent relations and the psychological (re)adjustments that may become necessary; the evolution of our political culture and the extent to which the emergence of new information and communications technologies (ICTs) – social media in particular – may mean that the need “to touch flesh” as a core element of representational politics has become, or is fast becoming a thing of the past; and whether the political composition of the Commission and resource availability may very well be influential factors in determining the tone and outcome of such exercises.Notwithstanding, the Minister for Finance, by his own admission, in a previous incarnation in 2001 had argued vehemently against efforts to adjust the boundaries, contending “any increase in the number of constituencies has resource implications – any increase! Interestingly, 14 years later, the Prime Minister on Tuesday 10 February, in a quest for absolution, confessed “Having assessed the costs associated with the recommendations of the Commission I am satisfied that the concerns then may well have been exaggerated.” It is the public’s prerogative to grant forgiveness! However, this is yet another poignant reminder that we cannot, as public officials and representatives of the people, always be politically convenient with the postures we adopt.
The Prime Minister and Minister for Finance in his presentation was very calculating, that in discussing the financial implications of the increase from 17 to 21 seats, he chose almost exclusively to focus on the impact on the salary and wage bill of the Government of Saint Lucia (with little to no discussion on the other fiscal implications!) In an extensive presentation, Dr. Kenny D. Anthony concluded that the increase from 17 to 21 seats would mean that “The cost for each new constituency’s representative is EC$89,440.92”. This translated is a 12% increase of the current costs of Parliamentarians, or a 0.07% increase in total recurrent wages and salaries (page 26 of Dr. Anthony’s 10/02/2015 presentation) leaving listeners/viewers to wonder whether the Government has come into some rich inheritance and that EC$357,763.68 per annum (and other hidden costs) could be sourced rather easily!
Curiously though, were the issues that were NOT discussed nor highlighted as critical? Of utmost relevance in that regard was what will be the overall fiscal implications of moving from 17 to 21 constituencies. There was a resounding silence on what it would mean, as well, for those agencies intimately involved in the electoral administration of this country, such as the Electoral Office. With the new constituencies, what will be the overall running cost of the Electoral Office (including elections) which may well exceed another EC$1.5 million or so? In fact this may prove to be a very conservative figure given the need for, among other things, new staff, additional office space, comprehensive public education on the proposed changes.
How then do we justify and juxtapose Government’s calls for a 5% salary cut for public servants, while at the same time propose the formation of new constituencies which can run into the millions and create a significant dent on the public purse? The country can ill afford a penny more at this time. Were that not the case, by now the new Dennery and Victoria hospitals would have been outfitted with a dependable back-up power supply, the St. Jude hospital would have cleared its debts with its suppliers (fuel, napkins, toilet paper), the Royal St. Lucia Police Force would have resumed its recruitment drive, the Fire Service would have procured additional ambulances, deteriorating schools would have been renovated and there would be no need for a split-shift system, termite-infested school furniture would have been replaced … Oh, and there certainly would have been no need to slash the school transportation subsidy (throwing our kids to the roadside for preying vultures to pounce on them!) Clearly there are more pressing issues in the country to which the Government ought to give priority at this time.
So, for the Minister responsible for Finance to concentrate almost exclusively on wages and salaries, and to give the impression that it is a mere 12% increase of current costs of Parliamentarians, is woefully irresponsible and disingenuous. This is especially so against the backdrop of a deteriorating fiscal deficit, an increasingly frightening Debt to GDP ratio which has now exceeded 80% depleting national savings, and three years of economic contraction with very little indication of a potential upswing in the current economic situation any time soon.
The unspoken issues needed to form the crux of Tuesday’s debate: Should not the Government have used the opportunity to allay the anxieties of taxpayers who ultimately will bear the burden of the costs associated with the additional four seats? The Government should by now be in a position to articulate the fiscal measures it would be undertaking to generate the required revenue to implement the recommended additional seats. The people cannot bear this additional burden at this time.
But beyond the fiscal implications, there were other silent truths that were never heard, albeit there might have been passing references to the need to uphold the principles of democracy and to congratulate ourselves for what were touted as herculean accomplishments in good governance and bipartisanship! It would be foolhardy of me (or anyone) to embrace the fulfillment of a constitutional requirement, as per Section 58 of our constitution, as the sum total of democratic maturity!
Let us remind ourselves that in our valiant quest to reinvent the wheel, and to give full meaning to the core tenets of free and open democracy … as it pertains to our electoral culture, in this instance … that the substantive conclusions of two previously penned reports have failed to attract the legislative attention and merit they deserve. The Final Report of the OAS Electoral Observation Mission for the General Elections in Saint Lucia, November 2011, made recommendations, among them the need to establish the Commission on Electoral Boundaries to define a more equitable division of constituencies (page 28). But there are far more extensive prescriptions which can go a long way in strengthening and sustaining our fledgling democracy.
Of even greater concern are the recommendations of a 1998 Saint Lucia Constituency Boundaries Commission Assignment, done by the Commonwealth secretariat, at the behest of the then Prime Minister, Kenny D. Anthony, with the explicit aim of “maintaining the integrity and transparency of the electoral process”.
Surely, shelving the report does little to achieve this, if the prescriptions are never administered to the ailing patient!
Beyond the acrimony of partisan politics, lies fertile ground for the comprehensive examination and healthy discourse on the contents of both reports, as we demarcate the fault lines that can ultimately determine our political fate! by Dr. Gale Rigobert Leader of the Oppoistion and MP for Micoud North.