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Statement made by Dr the Hon Timothy Harris, Senior Minister, on the Senators (Increase of Numbers) Bill at the sitting of Parliament on January 15, 2013

Mr Speaker, this Bill, since it was introduced and given a first reading has caused much disquiet amongst the people of this country, for many reasons, some of which question the rationale for imposing additional financial burden on our already overstretched and overstressed taxpayers.  Some ask where are we going with more unelected persons?  Mr Speaker, the records will show that I have also questioned the rationale for introducing the Bill at this time.

As a responsible Representative, I have consulted with my beloved constituents and given them the opportunity to express their views with regard to the need for the Bill and I am happy to say that my position is in lock step with the overwhelming majority of my Constituents.  As a matter of fact, it is in their expressed passionate contextual framework, that I make my contribution, with your permission.

The People’s Reality

Mr Speaker, I am sure that you hear the sad stories of parents and children, men and women, old and young who wake up at mornings without any idea of how they will make it through the day with a proper meal.  I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you know that we have people amongst us who go to sleep at nights with no clue as to how they will pay that light bill or that water bill, or make that loan payment that is long overdue.  Mr Speaker, every day I hear the cries of our people for help, their demands for a little relief, and it is heartbreaking when you know that you are doing all you can to assist, but yet there are still those falling through the gaping hole in the social safety net.

Mr Speaker, the true fact is, the hardness of the times is a consequence of the global economic recession and also domestic policies that were adopted before the global recession and as a result of it.  But, wherever we ascribe the triggers of this crisis, whether foreign or domestic, we cannot escape the sad fact that things are hard for Labour, hard for PAM, hard for NRP, hard for CCM and hard for non aligned people in this country. All of us are feeling it and we cannot continue on this downward path.

Right now, as I make my contribution, Mr Speaker, I feel for persons who are having their electricity and water supplies disconnected.  As we debate this Bill to increase the number of Senators, as we propose to add thousands of dollars to the federal budget, unnecessarily, I might add, we need to spare a thought for persons who are being told that the economic hardship will lead to them getting less than a five day work week.

Why Are We Debating This Bill?

Mr Speaker, I have taken the time to emphasize the point that things are hard to raise a very pertinent question….why are we here debating this increase in the Senators Bill, to impose further financial burdens on our people, at a time when they can least afford it…why?  How do we give rational explanation to civil servants who have had their increments frozen for years as part of a home grown IMF programme?  Should we tell them that we had no money for them because we needed to get resources for three Senators?  How can we tell the young high school or university graduate when they ask about government’s hiring freeze that there’s no money, but yet we can find money to pay three additional parliamentarians? Who do we designate to tell the school child that his or her quality of life will be severely affected because the father or mother or both have just been laid off from the civil service at a productive age of 55?  Who is designated hitter…..the rookie Senator?   

Mr Speaker, something has gone amiss and you don’t fix a problem with a problem.  When things are difficult, as they are now, in these times when the majority of people are desperately trying to make ends meet, businesses are struggling because aggregate demand is down, the proper thing to do is not to pile on financial pressure.  The right thing that we as Representatives have a duty to do is to provide the enabling environment for economic growth by putting more money in people’s pockets….giving them a break on taxes and import tariffs, cutting the charges for electricity and water….cutting government discretionary spending, ….investing in infrastructure that will provide the foundation for a 21st century growth-oriented economy.  Mr Speaker, that is where our focus as members of the executive and legislative branches ought to be….looking after the people’s jobs not working night and day to secure another salary and another job for political appointees.

I Remain Unconvinced By Reasons Advanced For The Bill

So, Mr Speaker, why are we then here debating this Bill?  To what end Mr Speaker, is this Bill to bring three additional political appointees into Parliament before us at a time when the government is in a financial bind?  Why do the proponents of this Bill feel so strongly, at this time, about introducing an obviously unpopular Bill!  Why would one take such risk with the people’s money?  This is not a wise move, by any measure!  It is a Bill that puts Labour at odds with the people.  In my humble view we are disconnecting from people.

Mr Speaker, however we look at this Bill, whether it is to redress gender imbalance, or the issue of the failure to appoint a Deputy Speaker as constitutionally mandated, or the easing of the workload of Cabinet members, the arguments for passage of this Bill do not present a convincing case to the people of this country.  Whilst I have long supported the imperatives of addressing the issue of gender balance in Parliament and the election of a Deputy Speaker, it is my firm view that such redress can be accomplished within the existing Parliamentary structure, with no additional costs to the taxpayers.  We had a Deputy Speaker for one day.  If we really believed in the need for a Deputy Speaker, we would have appointed one of our Senators to that role for it is always the duty of the government to make sure the House is properly constituted.  When Senator Skerritt resigned we were told that the House is properly constituted.  If that was the honest truth, then why are we returning now to that matter?  Something is not right!

On the matter of the additional resources needed to run a more “complex” government.  I am persuaded that, in these times of austerity, we ought to lead by example and look at ways and means of accomplishing more with less.  This can be achieved by reducing the operational costs associated with Cabinet by embracing more efficient and modern technology, methods and systems to increase efficiency, performance and productivity.  Such approach, I believe will send a stronger signal to our stakeholders at home and abroad, that government is serious about putting this country back on a path to a secure and prosperous future.  And more than that Mr Speaker, that we at the highest levels of government, we are also prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.

It Is The People Who Will Bear This Additional Costs

Clearly, the route chosen by the proponents of this Bill, however you cut and slice it, will mean additional budgetary costs with no incremental benefit to taxpayers.  That is what concerns me and that is the representation that I bring to this Honourable House from my constituents who will be inevitably saddled with higher taxes, whether through VAT or Social Services Levy, higher out payments for utilities, higher costs associated with health care, higher costs for education and higher costs for food, land and housing.  They will pay for it one way or the other, sooner or later because it has a cost.

Mr Speaker, if there is extra money to spend right now, let us spend it on more worthy causes, like:

  1. 1.strengthening the social safety net for the poor and indigent;
  2. 2.giving more relief to needy families all over;
  3. 3.repairing the roof at the Mary Charles Hospital;
  4. 4.putting proper lighting at Estridge Housing Development;
  5. 5.fixing the problems at the Basseterre High School and all of the schools in our Federation;
  6. 6.renovating the School Meals facility at Needsmust;
  7. 7.assisting farmers who suffered damages of almost $1million after tropical storm Rafael;
  8. 8.replacing blown street bulbs across the country in order to provide safer environments for our people;
  9. 9.renovating the Public Market in Basseterre;
  10. 10.filling in the potholes on Owen and Thomas Street in Molyneux and Molyneux Extension, resurfacing Hidden Alley and elsewhere in the country.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the many outstanding projects that cannot be funded because of budgetary shortfalls, which in effect highlight the point that I am making that at this time, and that is, there are more important things to do with taxpayers money than to increase the number of Senators in Parliament and ultimately the number of members in Cabinet.

Senators Not A Priority

How can we now justify adding even one other unelected member to Parliament?  We know we cannot not under our present dire financial circumstances!…So what do the proponents of this Bill do in the face of that reality?  They audaciously offer to add three…three…flying in the face of good reason and judgment!  That, Mr Speaker, cannot be sensitive and sensible governance with regard to the affairs of state!  If we were to agree to this proposed bill, what message would we be sending to the hundreds, thousands of young men and women who cannot find work?  What message are we sending?…What example are we showing those university graduates who come back home, hoping to start a bright and prosperous future in their field of study but who get increasingly frustrated and disillusioned by a system choking with debt, having no fiscal space to absorb their talents!

How do we explain to those students that instead of adding them to the government’s payroll, we are proposing instead to add three unnecessary, unelected Senators?  How do we comfort them when they have student loans to repay immediately, cost of living expenses to meet and retired parents and younger siblings in kindergarten to high schools who stare them in the face daily wondering when they will use their learning to bring desperate financial relief to the households?  How do we as a Labour government of the people, by the people, for the people explain that?  How do we internalize and rationalize that?

This is a Labour government and that is not the tradeoff a Labour government of the people should be making…it is a wrong choice!  A wrong choice at the wrong time!

It Is the Wrong Time For This: Increasing Cost Of Administration Of Public Services When Already Costs Of The Services Are Exorbitantly High

Wrong choice at the worst of time!  We are going about the business of government, on this issue, in the wrong way, Mr Speaker!  Wrong because our country is broke and struggling in the midst of an IMF austerity programme that is squeezing every drop of self worth and dignity out of our people.  An austerity programme that could have been avoided.  I might add, if only we listened more to good, sound and better financial and economic advice.  But that is not the worst part, Mr Speaker, the worst part is that we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over…a practice that has brought us here in this honourable House on this day to discuss this Bill.  Mr Speaker, the people cannot afford to have their elected representatives make the same mistakes, all the time with predictable consequences.  That is not the reason they sent us here.

That cannot be right Mr Speaker, that cannot be right by any measure….by any measure it is wrong!  Just as it is wrong to sell our precious lands back to the same people from whom the Right Excellent Sir Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw acquired them, just so it is wrong to once again ask our people to pay the price for a decision not well thought through but done in haste to meet an unspoken end!

Wrong decision at the worst of time, Mr Speaker!  Wrong decision at the worst of time!  Wrong because at this time increased expenses will mean higher debt, more VAT, higher electricity costs, higher taxes and more economic misery for our people.  Wrong because at this time the Teachers in our schools, our Nurses, our Policemen, our Clerks, Senior Clerks, Executive Officers, Assistant Secretaries, Senior Assistant Secretaries, Directors, indeed our civil servants cannot get any increment because of the IMF austerity programme.  And while we cannot find money to give our hard working civil servants an increment the proponents of this Bill seem overzealous about finding money to pay more political appointees!  That is wrong!

Wrong Bill at the wrong time because next year, 2013, we will have to begin to repay the IMF its interest on the US $80.6 or EC $220 million stand-by loan secured last year to avert a fiscal cliff.  Government expenses will mushroom and so will the pain and suffering of a people who are at their wits end.  Our people cannot take any more Mr Speaker, and we should not force them to take any more.  Wrong time for more pain, but right time for relief!  Relief is what we should be debating here today for our people….not more pain!  They have had enough…we cannot ask them to take more of what they have said they don’t want!  We cannot pass this Bill and add more burden, Mr Speaker!

Adding burden to the poor is not in keeping with Labour’s philosophy nor history.  That is why I cannot of good conscience support it.

The People Do Not Want More Unelected Members

Mr Speaker, I say without fear of contradiction, our people do not want to have more unelected people in Parliament.  That at this time does not promote good governance.  What our people have clearly indicated they want is more access to information about government, in other words guaranteed freedom of access to information; more structures that will allow people to express their views on issues affecting them, in other words, more consultation; more direct engagement of the people in the process of government, in other words, more participation; and more oversight and control over the activities of government, in other words, more accountability and integrity.

Mr Speaker, our people do not want to undermine the system of representation in parliament.  As a matter of fact, if you ask them they will tell you that some of the unelected members, have been given too much power and have too much say in the running of government.  They will tell you that some of the unelected members are, “too out of order and show no respect to the people’s representatives”.  That’s what they will tell you!  They ask Parliament after Parliament why those unelected people behaving so, why are they interrupting the people’s choice so often?

Mr Speaker, our people want their elected members of Parliament to be respected as their genuine voice in Parliament.  That’s why they put us here…they want us to speak for them.  We represent the legitimate voices of the people and to bring more unelected members into this Honourable House, especially at a time when we can least afford it, raises the question as to how in touch we are with the people’s realities!  That’s the hard cold fact, because one cannot make the argument that giving the people more of what they don’t want serves the best interest of the people.

Our people are saying loudly and clearly that what they need at this time is help, not hurt!  They are saying at this time they want their elected representatives to pursue a policy and legislative agenda that works for them not against them.  Our people are saying that they want elected parliamentarians speaking for them not more unelected members speaking with callous abandon about them.  Mr Speaker, our people understand that this country is in a financial and economic crisis.  They can feel it, they live it every day and they are demanding that we take preemptive, concrete action to reverse this slide down a slippery slope.  They want us to assure them by our action and by our example, that we will embark on a fiscally prudent path and guarantee them that the legislative and policy agendas of the government are driven by what will work for them not against them.  They want their order to bring joy, pride, meaning and satisfaction to their lives, not shame and chagrin.

Mr Speaker, it is in that context that I say, instead of loading more unelected members of Parliament on the bended backs of the poor, let us in this Parliament make sacrifices to straighten the posture of those in need.  Let us ask ourselves, what else can we do today to make the lives of our constituents better tomorrow?  Let us as elected parliamentarians do more for less!  Let us work more hours for less pay to demonstrate our commitment to righting this ship in an expeditious manner.

Mr Speaker, I as an elected representative of the people, cannot in good conscience take any position on this bill that goes against the wishes of the people of my constituency.  I have to stand for what is right…I have to stand for what will make a better way for them.

Standing Up  So That The Pressure May Ease

I am clear in my own mind that I am standing up for the people who I love.   I stand up for the poor!  I stand up for the unemployed!  I stand up for those whose electricity service has been cut, whose water supply has been disconnected.  I am standing up to say the pressure must ease.  I stand up to say that the philosophy of LABOUR, the principles of LABOUR, the ideals of LABOUR, the caring of LABOUR must be allowed to flourish.    I stand to ask that we withdraw this Bill because it symbolizes a Labour not at its best.  A LABOUR not being sensitive to people’s suffering, pain and anger.  I stand up not just for LABOUR people alone, but for all the people, whether they are LABOUR, PAM, NRP or CCM.  I stand up for those who find it difficult putting food on the table, clothes on the backs of their children, finding moneys to pay day care expenses.  Mr Speaker, the Lord knows the poor can’t take no more.

Mr Speaker, I end by saying that the people who sent us here as elected members of Parliament, demand of us that we do the right thing for them and that is why at this time, on this day, in this august chamber, I respectfully register my opposition to the Senators (Increase of Numbers) Bill, 2012.

In closing, permit me to share this hymn that I love dearly and which helps me get through the day as a servant of the people.  It’s called “Make Me A Blessing”.

Make Me a Blessing

Out in the highways and byways of life,

Many are weary and sad;

Carry the sunshine where darkness is rife,

Making the sorrowing glad.

Chorus

Make me a blessing, make me a blessing,

Out of my life may Jesus shine;

Make me a blessing, O Savior, I pray,

Make me a blessing to someone today.


May it please you, Mr Speaker.

 

Wrong Time

The most pressing issue facing this country is how we are going to bring easement to the people.  Relieve them of their pain and suffering and put the country to work again.

In the context of this, we must ask ourselves why are we focusing today not on the real people issues of affordable electricity, resumption of normalcy to the students at the Basseterre High School, development of sustainable jobs for  people.  We are distracted with finding jobs for 3 Senators, 3 political appointees.

The Bill is bad not only in substance.  It is bad in symbolism because it indicates that the priority of the government is self serving, it is not about the people’s business but the business of a few.  It is bad because it sends a message that the government is disconnected from the people.

I must therefore take a stand and warn the government of which I am a part of, that it is losing people and like our popular calypsonian ‘Unexpected’, the people are saying the government doesn’t care.

It is very hard and very difficult to be the voice of reason when others are head strong, when others believe that it is their way or the high way.

I believe I have a duty to advise, to warn and to take a stand at all times.  I do so in the best interest of the country.  We are citizens of St Kitts and Nevis, first and foremost.  I do not understand that there are those who believe that one must not respond to their conscience.  If we let our conscience die, if we let wrong triumph because we fear those with power we will do ourselves a disservice.  So today, as a caring member of the Labour administration, my heart and my mind tell me that what we are doing is not in the people’s interest.  It is not working for the people.

Today I plea that we should withdraw this Bill.  Today I say that I love my country, and my people too much not to stand up and say wrong is wrong, or right is right!  This Bill does not feel right and it is not right!

I would have preferred that the first sitting of Parliament would have been the signal that we understand that we are a country in crisis and we recognize that we need to come together not as Labour, PAM, CCM or NRP but as patriots, people who love our country and are willing to do the best that we can for our beloved country.

Indeed our country needs us working together for its betterment not just in these unsettling times but all the time.

Our small country has suffered enough from the political tribalism and we must not work together to build arrangements that shall protect our people regardless of which Party is in power.  We have to avoid dictatorship and cultism in our politics.


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