Island Editorial (Cartoons inserted by TW)
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe admitted he was making an unpopular proposal and knew that he would be criticized when he said a few days ago that salaries of MPs are grossly inadequate for the work they are required to carry out in their constituencies. He said he was proposing substantially higher wages to reduce corruption and attract better talent to parliament. Nobody shouted him down when he said what he did because if there is anything on which all legislators agree without demur, it is on pay and perks for themselves. But we must say in fairness that is not a trait exclusive to parliamentarians. It is true for all human beings.
Whatever the prime minister may think about MPs needing better compensation, public opinion will run strong against any proposal to increase the emoluments of legislators. As it is, the large majority of the people resent MPs pay and perks which are unrelated to average incomes of ordinary people. Some time ago there was an attempt to link parliamentarians pay to those of judges so that when judges got an increase, MPs too would get one.
When Wickremesinghe said his wife earned more than he did, most people who read his remarks would have smiled. It is quite possible that the premier’s wife, a university professor, gets a larger pay cheque than her husband. But what the taxpayer of this country spends to maintain their prime minister bears no comparison to what the universities spend to maintain an academic. Comparison on this score is no doubt akin to comparing apples and oranges. But it is the prime minister who in passing made that comparison. Wickremesinghe is rather fond of comparing his pay with those of others. Speaking at the 30th anniversary of the Ravaya newspapers a few days earlier, he said that editors of most newspapers (“I don’t know about Ravaya” he qualified) and news directors in the electronic media earned more than he did. While there are many people in the country paid more than their president, prime minister, ministers and other elected representatives, there are many more that are paid far less.
The prime minister is right that we do need to attract better people to parliament, people who will not loot the public purse as many have done in the past and continue to do at present, and make useful contributions to both the legislature and good governance. In the early post-Independence years, the parliamentary allowance of an MP was a meager Rs. 750. They came in their own vehicles to sittings of the House – some like Dr. W. Dahanayaka came by bus or train because they did not own a vehicle – and nobody got duty free permits to buy vehicles. They paid for their own petrol which in those days cost about Rs. 2.50 a gallon.
Undoubtedly many of those elected to the then House of Representatives were people who had private means – landowners and the like – as well as professionals who did nicely as lawyers and doctors. But others were by no means rich or comfortably off and did not ask for more. LSSP leader Dr. N.M. Perera, despite his very high qualifications, did not practice a profession and was among the earliest to urge that MPs be paid pensions. NM did however engage in some private business and older readers would remember his being pilloried over the Giridara Mill in the sixties and references in newspapers to plantations he had owned – Oakfied and Moragolla. While he could be attacked for being a capitalist in a capitalist system while professing socialism, none would dare accuse him of ever making a dirty rupee.
There would be a substantial body of opinion in the country that paying MPs better will not reduce corruption or in any great measure attract better people to the legislature – a few maybe, but not all that many. As it is, the existing pay and perks and the opportunities that abound for politicians to make crooked bucks have attracted many undesirables to the legislature. Exigencies of politics have made those who were rejected by the electors to be appointed on the National List. President Sirisena says that the Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP strived might and main to have party candidates they labeled as “Sirisena supporters” defeated and he made these appointments to have people he trusted in the House. However that may be, the principle of such appointments does not bear examination and it is to be hoped that the National List is abolished in the new constitution. It is hard to think of anybody but the late Lakshman Kadirgamar who deserved to come unelected to parliament in accordance with criteria set out for National List nominations. There have been some worthies who have enjoyed ministerial appointments by coming into parliament on the national lists of both major parties!
We are now a middle income country according to the official classification of international multilateral lending agencies. But like in most developing countries, most wealth here is concentrated in the upper strata of the population. There was a report in yesterday’s The Island that the richest one percent of Indians own over half that country’s wealth. This is very true of very many countries in the world although the figures may be less dramatic. Given conditions that prevail here, the majority of our people would feel that our MPs do not do badly in terms of pay and perks in comparison to most of their countrymen (and women). Granting legislators increased emoluments in the context of prevailing country conditions will be both unpopular and unfair. Maybe some honest legislators who might do better outside politics (we do have a few of them) have persuaded the prime minister that a wage revision is appropriate. Given that he is more fortunately placed than most of his parliamentary colleagues, Wickremesinghe may well view such requests sympathetically. But acting on such sentiment, however well intentioned, will not only be unpopular but wrong.