Monday, May 4, 2009

Benefits for former presidents

Benefits for former presidents

Posted By Stabroek staff On May 4, 2009 @ 5:01 am In Editorial | No Comments

No one will deny that former presidents of this country should be well taken care of when they are no longer in office and particularly in their golden years. What has, however, jarred in relation to the Former Presidents (Benefits and other Facilities) Bill 2009 which was passed on Thursday after acrimonious debate is the timing of its presentation and the quantum of benefits it entails.

As far as the public is concerned this bill came out of the blue without any public discussion. Whether there had been prior consultation with the main opposition PNCR is neither here nor there but certainly there should have been some broader discussion of this bill and its provisions particularly as the public will conceive that it was President Jagdeo himself who had the major role in its formulation and since he will be one of the prime beneficiaries and for quite a long period it would be unseemly if there wasn’t some more objective consideration of its contents.

During his defence of the bill in Parliament, Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh argued that the aside from taking care of former presidents, the bill was a deliberate effort to ensure statute-based transparency by enshrining in black and white what former presidents are entitled to. His defence came across as contrived particularly as the timing of the bill was suspect. If indeed this government of President Jagdeo was so keen on securing the circumstances of former presidents why was it presented in April, 2009? President Jagdeo’s tenure has seen the demise of three former Presidents of senior age who were unable to access the generous benefits that are now enshrined in this bill. Shouldn’t they too have been entitled to these provisions? Or was it the case that perhaps the benefits might have been embarrassing to former President Mrs Jagan whose lifestyle was one of patent frugality and adduced little tolerance for extravagance? Interestingly the out-of-the blue bill came just shortly after her passing and nestled amid several companion bills such as the one finally settling benefits for Mrs Hoyte, one for an Office of the Spouse of the President which is superfluous at this point but would certainly have been of use to the President’s former wife, Ms Singh and another to settle benefits for the Opposition Leader. Clearly the main attraction was the presidential bill while the others comprised the supporting cast.

Aside from President Jagdeo, the only other person who can benefit from this bill is PM Hinds having served as President for less than a year. Former President Chung who served for 10 years, President Hoyte for seven years and Mrs Jagan for 18 months never saw this kind consideration of their golden years though on the basis of their public images they may not have even been interested in the benefits.
When he has an opportunity, President Jagdeo should explain to the public why his government moved only now to secure the circumstances of former presidents and why between the years 1999 and 2009 this had not been deemed necessary. What the public will alight upon is that the opportunity for President Jagdeo to possibly seek a third term in office is rapidly diminishing. Indeed, he made perhaps his most categorical statement on the matter to date at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago – not Guyana – about his not being interested in running again, still not however ruling anything out. Now that he would most likely not have a third term, the irresistible conclusion to be drawn from the bill is that he is now setting about securing himself after he is no longer president. As an aside it should be noted that President Jagdeo also chose Port-of-Spain to announce that his government would be taking a Freedom of Information bill to Parliament in two months after stonewalling the Guyanese public for years here on this basic tool of good governance.

The timing of the bill aside, the benefits enshrined must be scrutinized. The average Guyanese man and woman in today’s economy will be able to determine the reasonableness of the provisions. On the face of it the argument by the opposition in Parliament that there should be caps and greater definition of what the benefits entail is sensible. The bill covers payment for water, electricity and telephone service at a place of residence here and medical expenses – no one will have a problem with that. However, there are undefined benefits which will raise eyebrows in any environment – services of an unspecified number of personal and household staff, services of an unspecified number of “clerical and technical staff” and the use of and maintenance by the state of an unspecified number of vehicles. Two other provisions are also inexplicable – toll free road transportation in Guyana and tax exemption status equivalent to a president. Why should former presidents be afforded these concessions while the state seeks assiduously to ensure that each and every one of its citizens pay their rightful share of taxes and tolls for important services? Why shouldn’t former presidents pay taxes on income they may make in the future – something that is particularly relevant to President Jagdeo as he can easily have another 20 working years ahead of him?

Several provisions in this bill are clearly extravagant. They must be revised and tapered. We also look forward with great interest to any regulations which may be promulgated by the Minister of Finance for the operating of this piece of legislation.

No act by the state to spend the monies of hardworking tax payers of this country must be calculated in unthinking or self-serving ways.

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