It is time to take back ownership of the country we want, limit the terms of office of Prime Ministers to a maximum of two terms and trigger a salubrious change of guards of our choice at the helm of the country
The idealism and high standard of ethics associated with politicians fighting for democracy and the rights and freedom of the people have over time been supplanted by a new breed of politicians driven by their own interests and the endless pursuit of power by all means instead of unswervingly promoting the interests of the people. Across the world there is pervasive disappointment among the people at the inability of the political class to adopt cogent policies which above all puts the well-being and the improvement of the standard of living of people at the centre of government actions and robustly addresses the major problems facing humanity such as climate change and ever widening inequality.
The Brexit vote was thus a backlash against the political establishment. The pro-Brexit leaders and campaigners who had promised the moon to the British people did not have any credible Brexit plan. Less than six months before the UK leaves the European Union on 29 March 2018, the Brexiteers promise of a United Kingdom which would be free from overbearing EU rules and which would take back control over its borders, legislative framework, its finances and its trade and customs rules seems as elusive. Boris Johnson, the key proponent of Brexit and a contender for the Conservative Party leadership who released a six-point Brexit plan last week ahead of the Conservative Party conference held early this week did not provide any new path breaking ideas nor a viable pathway forward. The European Research Group (ERG) which groups hardline Brexiteer MPs has been unable to produce its own Brexit Plan. Empty platitudes won’t do.
In his speech at the Conservative Party conference, Boris Johnson nevertheless asked that Prime Minister Theresa May’s Chequers Brexit plan be scrapped as it did not reflect what the electorate had voted for. The country is deeply divided on Brexit. Theresa May faces tough negotiations on the terms of a Brexit with the EU such as post Brexit immigration, an end to the free movement of people, the terms of trade, a customs arrangement to avoid a hard border in Ireland, etc., in the months ahead. She is also weakened by dissent within the Conservative party where her leadership is being challenged and needs to have her final Brexit deal agreed with the EU approved by a divided Parliament. Yet again, the infighting for power by politicians is distracting attention from the vital issue of brainstorming and negotiating the best possible Brexit deal for the UK.
It is obvious that Brexit will have an adverse impact on our trade ties with the UK, tourist flows and trade procedures. Why not convert the UK into a low tax country in a Europe with generally high tax rates and a hub for services, innovation, free trade and a post Brexit immigration policy aimed at attracting from across the globe high-skilled workers and professionals with the pointed skills the UK economy needs?
Pensioners on the warpath
In France, Emmanuel Macron who was voted as President of France in May 2017 on the promise that he would revive a sluggish economy and clean up politics took the inane decision to increase taxes imposed on pensioners in France asking them to help him relaunch the economy for the youths. Pensions are generally strapped in Europe. Against such a backdrop, how on earth can government impose higher taxes on pensioners, when most of them are eking out a livelihood from their meagre pensions? Pensioners are legitimately riled at this decried iniquity and are up in arms against the government. The backlash was such that Emmanuel Macron’s party lost two by-elections for parliamentary seats in February 2018 just eight months after winning the seats, in the first electoral test since it won a commanding majority last June. Not surprisingly there were widespread protests in France in March by some of the 15 million pensioners in France.
Emmanuel Macron’s presidency has also been plagued by prolonged protests by workers and students in the context of changes brought to the labour code, the education system, the reform of the rail sector and sapped by the Benalla affair and the recent resignation of the ecology minister Nicolas Hulot. In the space of some 16 months, his popularity has sunk to his lowest ever approval rating of 29% in September 2018.
At a time when we are paying our taxes in Mauritius, is it not high time for pensioners to have an improved tax regime than currently bearing in mind objective considerations. None of the exemptions applicable to employed people are applicable to them. Retired persons cannot get medical insurance cover once they retire because of their age but are at risk of incurring high medical expenses for treatment should they fall ill. Pensioners therefore need a fairer tax regime. There is therefore a strong case for increasing the tax exception threshold of retired persons to at least Rs 480,000 to enable them to save and set aside funds to obtain appropriate treatment in case of health problems given the high and rising costs of adequate health treatment in the country. This amount is the current tax exemption threshold allowed to an employee with two dependents who in addition benefits from the other exemptions, reliefs and deductions allowed by the tax rules. As in France, the important population of pensioners also represents a large swathe of voters in the country.
The limit of a maximum of two terms of office codified in their Constitution means that Presidents in the US or France have to step down after serving a maximum of two terms of office if they are elected. This enables the emergence of new leaders with a new vision and the election of new Presidents. A well rooted democratic culture within parties has also ensured a regular change of leadership and Prime Ministers in the UK. There have been six different prime Ministers since 1990 in the UK alternating between the Conservative and the Labour parties and multiple changes of leadership at the head of these two parties over the period. In contrast, the local political scene is frozen in time.
A stagnant time warp
Mauritius has had only three Prime Ministers elected at the polls since independence. Likewise, the country has for decades been saddled with the same leaders of the main political parties and their individual deeply rooted hangovers and fixations which impede progress. The upshot is that government and the main actors of the local political vaudeville are patently out of their depths to grapple with the more daunting challenges faced by the country. Despite the rhetoric growth currently forecast at 3.9% in 2018 has been disappointingly below an elusive 4% during the last 7 years. Without the impetus of intellect, talent and the game changing initiatives of a new leadership, the country will continue to be trapped in a stagnant time warp.
For too long those in power have rehashed the same flawed policies and economic template which have systematically failed the country. It is anathema for the people that leaders who have repeatedly been disavowed at the polls or who have no legitimacy or mandate to govern still arrogate themselves the right to play god and horse trade in a closed caucus changes to our Constitution and the electoral system.
No wonder, the government botched and disputed decisions are becoming rife in so many areas such as government recruitment policies, state owned banks, the decried manner permits are granted to operators and due diligence exercises are carried out in the financial services sector or the recent proposed handouts to sugar planters when what is required is to urgently resolve the core problem of shareholding of sugar producers in the various sugar cane cluster enterprises to assure a fairer sharing of revenues from these activities and a critical appraisal of viable marketing options and operating costs.
Party funding: Eliminating opacity
After more than three years of discussions on the question of political party funding, it appears from media reports that government has come out with nothing better than to propose a funding of parties from public funds. This is totally unacceptable to the people, the more so as there is no real democracy within the political parties. These remain firmly under the stranglehold of omnipotent leaders who choose candidates for elections, manage party funds and decide on all key issues.
We cannot put the cart before the horse. The onus on all parties is to first come clean on the manner party funds are collected and administered. The current opacity surrounding party funding, finances, assets and the lavish spending during elections and party activities begs so many burning questions. What assets in terms of land, building premises, bank accounts, etc., are owned by the various parties? Who owns these assets? Is it the registered Party? Are there records, a register of donors and accounts which are kept and audited by accountants?
As a first step, all parties must therefore have a registered legal identity. They must administer their party funding through transparent records and accounts which are kept and audited by professional accountants. An appropriate legislative framework must codify the transparent modalities of party funding and institute robust bulwarks to ensure that party funding does not become a source of corruption, leverage and lobbying or money laundering. Party funding must be open to public scrutiny.
The Electoral Supervisory Commission must also be endowed with accrued powers and resources to oversee the system of party funding. Yet again, it is essential that the proposals for a system of rigorous control and rules applicable to party funding and expenditure are entrusted to specialists in the field instead of politicians with an axe to grind.
When a system no longer works, it has to be jettisoned and replaced by the new. The present ‘frozen’ political situation is fraught with risks for democracy in the country and a major handicap to progress. When politicians become the bane of the people, they have to go. As a nation it is time to take back ownership of the country we want, limit the terms of office of Prime Ministers to a maximum of two terms and trigger a salubrious change of guards of our choice at the helm of the country.
* Published in print edition on 5 October 2018