UPFA Anuradhapura District Parliamentarian S. C. Muthukumarana has done an Oliver Twist. However, unlike the well-known Dickensian character, the MP has not asked for more soup but more in terms of a salary increase for himself and Parliamentarians in general. Speaking during the debate on the Debt Conciliation Board (Amendment) Bill in Parliament on Wednesday Muthukumararana lamented that MPs would soon have to seek the assistance of the Debt Reconciliation Board because of the economic hardships they were facing. He had a ready ally in Non-Cabinet Minister Harsha De Silva who said the MP’s complaint was justified since not all members of Parliament were rich although there were those whose who had amassed wealth disproportionate to their known incomes during a short period.
True, there are those who enter Parliament to genuinely serve the public whilst there also others who are driven by the motive of enriching themselves. How else can one explain the lengths to which they go to win elections, even resorting to murder. But few would buy into the claim by Muthukumarana that MPs have been reduced to such a level of penury that they have to get into debt. Certainly not where the present lot are concerned.
There are various avenues open to MPs today to more than supplement their Parliament salaries. Only the other day the public were made aware of how MPs received so-called election donations from Arjun Aloysius. At least two MPs confessed that they received Rs. one million each from the disgraced owner of Perpetual Treasuries, while several names of others are said to have been revealed in the Special Presidential Commission Report on the Bond issue.
Besides, MPs’ salaries are padded up generously by other means. It is no secret that one of the perks of an MP is being entitled to a liquor licence. While some start the liquor business on their own under assumed names or in the name of their spouses or children still others sell these permits for tidy sums. There is also the small matter of duty-free vehicle permits which MPs now boldly say they have sold to third parties. One can only guess at what price.
Muthukumarana was also economical with the truth when he says an MP is hard put to exist on his/her Parliament salary. He has failed to mention the long list of allowances that go with the salary. To begin with, MPs receive an unlimited fuel allowance, has his/her telephone, FAX, electricity, water bills taken care of, partake of heavily subsidized meals in Parliament that include gourmet fare and in the case of a Minister or Deputy is entitled to a staff and usually has a spouse or one of the brood as Private Secretary whose salary too is taken care of, naturally adding to the family income. In addition, an MP is paid a so-called attendance allowance for being present in Parliament which in any event is what he/she was elected to do.
Muthukumarana also omits mentioning an additional Rs. 100,000 that is now being paid to each MP on a proposal by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for maintaining their offices in the electorate. Parliamentarians are also entitled to free travel abroad, often in Business Class and are also recipients of a host of other privileges at a hefty cost to the taxpayer.
On the flip side, MPs, particularly those from the villages, may claim that they have many obligations in their electorates. They are privileged guests at weddings and other functions and attendance is a must if they are to maintain a close rapport with the voters for any chance of being re-elected. The same goes for funerals. These naturally will drill a huge hole in the Parliament earnings of an MP and calls for an increase in emoluments could be justified to some degree.
But as already mentioned, an MP today has many income avenues that could more than offset these expenses. Besides, calling for a salary increase at this particular time when the public is facing economic hardship is not done either. In any event, the call for a salary increment for Parliamentarians in the context of the recent appalling behaviour of our honourable MPs in the hallowed precincts of Parliament can only draw public opprobrium towards them.
In any organisation, salary increments are granted to employees based on performance. The employers of these organisations demand value for money. It is moot whether our MPs could match this criterion. To begin with, what the public often see are empty benches, during televised sessions of Parliament when important Bills are discussed. Even among those present it is not unusual to see some of them in deep slumber. The public also are bound to question the prudence of granting salary increases to MPs who are not present in the House when there are questions billed to be raised on their behalf in the Order Paper.
Hence, MPs who demand salary increases in the present context should first turn the searchlight inwards and ask themselves if they deserve a hike in their emoluments.