The Assembly passed the Equal Opportunities Act (EOA) this week. It goes to the credit of the government in place that it has passed such legislation. Once the assent of the President is obtained and it is published in the Gazette, it will become law.
This law has been in gestation for a long time. This is surprising since model laws on the subject date as far back as 1974 in other countries and they could easily have been copied to give us the framework that would suit us best. The current Bill was presented in its first format before the Assembly in 2008 only to remain in abeyance all this time.
Irrespective of what could be the reason behind its present timing, one has to recognize that its passing will silence a number of protests we have been hearing about negative discrimination in the matter of appointment to public offices. The Bill has been passed without amendment. It seems to be utterly welcome on both sides of the House in view of the claim being put by the MMM that such legislation was ready in 2005 under the MMM-MSM government but that it had not been nudged forward by the succeeding Labour government of 2005.
These are politicians’ quarrels. The substantive legislation has been enacted. This is what actually counts. The purpose of an Equal Opportunities Act is to prohibit discrimination in the process of assigning individuals to places on premises such as age, disability, race, religion/belief, sex/gender or sexual orientation.
It is presumed that in the absence of an explicit law such as this one, there is a tendency for nepotism to work up in the system so that it is not always the most apt and suitably capable persons who are appointed to positions but rather those that suit the purpose of individuals in authority. It is claimed that with such legislation in place, there will be a level playing field in matters of recruitment in both the public and private sectors. In other words, arbitrariness in matters of selection will be replaced by an objective selection process in which meritocracy will have the upper hand.
The non-discrimination principle no doubt helps to remove artificial barriers or prejudices or preferences that usually stand in the way of individuals moving up the social hierarchy by sheer virtue of their merits and capabilities. It has to be recalled that there has taken place a sustained mass struggle against discrimination since a long number of years in Mauritius. In various colonies, only persons belonging to certain races or colours could aspire to become magistrates or judges; that goes back to less than one century ago. Only persons belonging to certain races could have access to libraries or have an audience with the high and mighty of the land. Such a system implied that those occupying the highest positions in the country and who are capable of changing the course of the law had to belong to a recognised elite community, the rest of the population being debarred from access to such hallowed positions.
Much progress has been made against such blatant social malpractices which tended to consolidate the original advantage in the hands of a few. We are moving one step further with the new legislation in the direction of a country like Singapore. One can hardly imagine a situation in that place whereby a person having a non-commercial aviation background were to be posted as CEO of its commercial aviation, only to be found not fit and proper to occupy that position after a couple of months of further fudging up. If one goes by the letter of the law, this will mean that our politicians will have much less freedom to appoint “whomsoever” to “whichever” position to the great disadvantage of the country and to the detriment of the efficient running of its institutions. Everyone knows we cannot afford to put square pegs in round holes without having to rush from time to time to seek the assistance of other countries to do the repairs to our defaulting institutions when the damage has already been done.
This means that politicians should be willing to tie their own hands in the matter of appointments, which may explain why putting the law in place has had such a hesitant course so far. According to the present text of the EOA, it will have an Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), acting as the appellate body when disputes arise. The Leader of the Opposition has objected to the current provision in the law that once the EOC has acted as arbiter between the parties contending a decision, the parties would have exhausted their opportunity to make an appeal to the courts against the EOC’s determination of the merits of the case. This further recourse to the courts against the EOC should not be out of place in our case; a provision of the sort would, in fact, have prompted the EOC to act in strict accordance with principles of fairness, making it less prone to erratic decision-making and, hence, strengthening its credibility in the eyes of the public.
The perception has grown over the years that wires are pulled to get cronies from some politically suitable pool or other appointed to high positions in a bid to secure vote banks. In particular, the view has been propagated that Creoles do not find themselves in sufficient numbers in positions of control in either the private or the public administration because they would have been discriminated against in the matter of selection. One answer to this is the EOA.
This law guarantees upward social mobility on the principles of meritocracy even though it legitimizes prevailing inequality of social outcomes on the basis of existing inequalities of wealth and income. Besides, this law will, unwittingly perhaps, have the merit of stopping the continuous pitching of one set of the population against the other on the allegation that one of them would be drawing all the benefits to itself by unfair means.
We know that perfect egalitarianism in society draws from the domain of Utopia. What we should target, with the presence of this law, however is a fairer balancing of social outcomes. Usually, a highly inegalitarian society like Mauritius manages to cast the odds against those who are worse off. Witness how easily tax laws are passed having a negative effect on the masses and how quickly those hurting the well-off are withdrawn. The superior goal should be to minimize this kind of adverse selection to the detriment of those who are at a disadvantage already. What we need is for the best of our people, no less, to head key strategic areas such as exports, food, water, energy, telecommunications, tourism, aviation, infrastructure, not the politicians’ friends whether or not they have the specific competence. Whenever political motivations have made us choose the less competent ones to run those key areas of national activity, we have only accumulated, sometimes, irreparable damage. While we need better social balancing, and this law provides us an additional opportunity to do so, we also need to ensure that our strategic areas do not fail us because of sub-optimal management.
* Published in print edition on 2 December 2011