“Politicians will always have the temptation to be populists

but populism alone will not lead to stability, prosperity and confidence”

Interview: Milan Meetarbhan

* ‘Manou Bheenick and Rama Sithanen will not always have what it takes to win elections,
but good governance, sound economic policies, enlightened leadership also matter for how well the country does’

 * ‘If a politician seeks to snatch the credit from the police for successful police operations, then should not that politician also accept moral responsibility for abuses of police officers?’

* ‘No one can undermine the credibility of the Police Force as much as police officers themselves can
No enquiry will undermine trust in the police but can in fact by holding errant police officers accountable give new impetus to discipline within the force’

Milan Meetarbhan, lawyer, political analyst and with wide experience as operator and regulator in the financial sector, shares in this week’s interview his views on the latestBudgetwhich he thinks was more an accounting exercise than what is really expected from a Minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development. He comments onhorseracing as a leisure industry and the regulatory and the politico-financial aspects of these rapidly developing. He also elaborates on the importance of the Rule of Law in keeping with both local and international norms, with the example of the expulsion ofa Slovak national to illustrate his points.

Mauritius Times:A Budget ‘for the people’ – that’s how Finance Minister Padayachy qualified his third 2022-2023 Budget. Whether this is a populist budget or not is perhaps besides the point, since the minister could not have done otherwise given the expectations of the population in favour of a “budget social” in the dire circumstances for the vast majority of consumers, who are battered by rising prices and an eroding purchasing power, isn’t it?

This budget is promoted as a Budget “for the people”. But all previous budgets were supposed to befor the people! On Tuesday however we heard a speech that was essentially from the Minister for the Budget and not a speech from the Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development. If the annual speech is one from the Budget minister telling us about an additional classroom that will be built in a school and a road that will be tarred in a village and how some benefits will be adjusted for inflation, then the question is when will the Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development deliver his State of the Nation address on the current state of our economy, what are the challenges that lie ahead and how government intends to address these.

I have heard the term “budget social” used by government spokesmen every year. If the object of the annual exercise is a social and political one and a government wants to be rated according to how it scores on the “social budget” index, then so be it. Let it remain an essentially accounting exercise from the Budget minister. But what about the state of public finances, the major trends of the economy, the new or adjusted national economic policies, when do we get to hear about these?

*Navin Ramgoolam’s comments on the budget about it being ‘misleading, smacks of manipulation of numbers… without any global vision or economic strategy… confetti measures’ encapsulate the Opposition’s views thereon. These may be justifiable criticisms, but they seem to miss the bigger (political) picture, isn’t it?

As I said just now, over the years the Budget Speech has lost a lot of its former status as an economic policy statement and become increasingly an accounting and PR exercise.Dr Ramgoolam’s reaction to the speech was, in my view, a reflection of the disappointment of many people who were hoping that at a time when we are being regularly told about major economic challenges the Government would state what these challenges are and how it plans to address them. The Minister had deliberately chosen to ignore the bigger economic picture and his primary concern seems to have been the political goals he had set himself. 

I am not commenting on the merits or otherwise of the social measures announced in the Budget. I understand that people are worried about the scourge of inflation and that the primary concern is bread and butter issues. My point is that we need to address more than this in a Budget. Politicians will always have the temptation to be populists. But populism alone will not lead to stability, prosperity and confidence. We have had two brilliant economists who have also been excellent policymakers, but both Manou Bheenick and Rama Sithanen will not always have what it takes to win elections. Good governance, sound economic policies, enlightened leadership also matter for how well the country does andultimately how well the people live.

I often hear people making derogatory remarks about “politique de salon”. They fail to realise that winning elections and governing a nation do not always require the same skill sets.

* A worsening of the economic situation and its impacts on the population would make it politically risky to hang on to power until 2024, thus the talks lately about the government’s intention to go for snap elections. Hon Padayachy’s Budget and the other measure in favour of Muslim widows, who had married religiously under the Muslim Personal Law, point to a well-thought-out strategy to do what matters electorally. What do you think?

A snap election could come not only to forestall a worsening economic situation but also as a result of other events lurking over the horizon. The present regime scores much higher on political strategizing than it does on governance and management of public affairs. Whilst it may in fact have contingency plans in case it is either forced to go for early elections or it feels compelled to take a calculated risk in dissolving the National Assembly before the end of its term, the opposition which is still talking about elections in two years’ time will be nonplussed. I said the opposition is still talking about elections in two years but I did not say planning for election in two years’ time! Worse still, the opposition does not seem to have any contingency planning for an early election.

Whilst the government maintains sanitary restrictions which clip the wings of the opposition, it goes about business as usual with official gatherings or campaigning events disguised as national events and secures maximum media coverage for its political messaging.

We also note that while Mauritius is being marketed abroad as a safe destination for tourists and we are told that we can expect a million tourists visiting the country, yet domestically we are told that the Covid situation compels government to postpone municipal elections sine die.

* The presentation of the Budget will have put on the backburner, possibly temporarily, the other controversial issues which have dominated public discussions in the past few weeks. Let’s first take up the allegations of torture made against some police units. Opinions may differ about what’s required to probe into this matter — a commission of inquiry rather than a judicial inquiry –, isn’t it important that we should not miss out on the imperative not to undermine the credibility of the police force – for the sake of the rule of law?

No one can undermine the credibility of the Police Force as much as police officers themselves can. No enquiry will undermine trust in the police but can in fact by holding errant police officers accountable give new impetus to discipline within the force and enhance the respect that a law enforcement agency worth its salt deserves.

I do not believe that the recent events warrant a commission of inquiry. Is our criminal process not adequate to deal with gross violations of the Criminal Code? Can an enquiry ordered by the DPP as opposed to one initiated by the political executive not yield better results at this juncture?

However, I believe that the suggestion from a group of lawyers for a Presidential Commission on the lines of the Mackay Commission appointed by the Labour government in 1996 to look at reforms in the judicial system, deserves more attention. Such a commission will not be looking at who may be guilty of alleged violations of the law as reported recently but at the broader picture: the recruitment and training of police officers, community policing, facilities and technology available to police officers, the role of the police as investigator and prosecutor and so on.

* It is widely believed that there exists two parallel forces within the Mauritius Police Force: one that looks after the standard police operations, and the other with the sole responsibility of investigating crime. How can the Commissioner of Police, past and present, be held to account for alleged dereliction of duty if they are not truly independent and empowered to command and discipline the entire force?

One of the issues raised during the Constitutional Talks in the 60s was that of the independence of the Commissioner of Police (cp). The Constitution seeks to protect such independence in at least two ways. First, by affording security of tenure to the CP which means that he cannot be removed until and unless an independent tribunal has investigated allegations of misconduct and recommended his removal. Second, the Constitution provides that in the exercise of his powers and responsibilities with respect to the use and operational control of the police force, the CP is not subject to the direction or control of any person. The minister responsible for the police can only give general directions of policy with respect to the maintenance of public safety and public order as he may consider necessary.

Whenever I see politicians seeking to derive political mileage from reported seizure of drugs, I wonder whether they are purporting to show that these have been made possible as a result of general policy directions given by a minister. If this is not the case but in fact results from the use and operational control of the police exercised from within the ranks of the police, then it is the police and not politicians who should be given due credit.

By the way, if a politician seeks to snatch the credit from the police for successful police operations, then should not that politician also accept moral responsibility for abuses or other wrongdoings of police officers?

On a separate note, one issue which has cropped up again in the wake of recent events is the rationale for a differentiated legal and procedural regime regarding civil actions against public officers and those against private individuals or corporates. The restrictive rules provided under the Public Officers Protection Act are not acceptable in a democratic society and must be reviewed.

* What are your views on the Mauritius Turf Club-Gambling Regulatory Authority (MTC-GRA) ongoing conflict and the criticisms of “State capture” of horse racing in Mauritius?

For the past few years there has been a lot of talk about how our institutions are being weakened by the appointments of political cronies at the helm and how the independence and credibility of institutions are being eroded. I have always had a keen interest in the role of regulators and in regulatory frameworks. I worked on this topic as an academic and later as an operator and as a regulator.

Leaving aside the issue of horseracing and gambling industry per se for a moment, I am concerned about the role of regulators in recent events. Before the 2019 elections people were talking about what the objective of the government would be with respect to horseracing in Mauritius if it were to win the elections. As events unfolded over the last two years, a number of steps were taken exactly in the direction of what we had been told would happen. Statements made by the Prime Minister and his Senior Adviser acting as regular spokesman for an independent regulator whilst applications were pending before the regulator seriously compromised the perception of independence and credibility of the regulator.

* There is a different perspective to the MTC-GRA conflict: it’s about the MTC’s perceived unwillingness to move out from its 200-year-old comfort zone and possibly its inability – for different reasons – to place horseracing on a higher level comparable to the likes in Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. Any government intent on modernising horse racing and setting the platform for a proper leisure industry would have stepped in – not for the sake of cronies and financiers however, but for the country’s, isn’t it?

If a government’s genuine intent is modernising the horse racing industry as part of a grand policy design for a proper leisure industry and there is a genuinely independent regulator for the industry which actively protects the public interest and ensures compliance with global standards, there may indeed be wide support for this initiative.

But if the public is not persuaded that’s the case and the incremental moves and the statements made over the years are perceived as the toolkit for a grand design of another sort, then the attack against the existing player may be seen as another case of give a dog a bad name and hang it. Many may even wonder whether the fact that a new player has been involved in political financing on a large scale could mean that part of the windfall gains from its absolute control over all segments of the industry could in fact be used to further the same political objectives – hence the strong support it has received so far.

* On another note, you had earlier made a detailed legal analysis of the issues around the expulsion of a Slovak national. Why is this important for the people at large?

There are issues which look too remote from the immediate concerns of many people as they go about their daily lives for them to bother about these issues. Respect for Rule of Law is one such issue.

When there are extradition proceedings pending before a court of law and an official press release from the PMO informs us that a foreign national had been removed from our jurisdiction by officials of a foreign government after our police force had handed over that individual to them, there is cause for concern. Concern about the sovereignty of our country, concern about respect for international norms, concern about Rule of Law. When I see the spin doctoring on a massive scale to justify lack of respect for Rule of Law, I am still more concerned.

What the government has been saying in effectboils down to this: the end justifies the means. In other words, a suspect may, whether he is a citizen or not, be dealt with in disregard of clear legal procedures under both domestic and international law if the alleged criminal offence is serious enough. It is the political executive which will decide if the offence is serious enough for the political executive to usurp the powers of the judiciary and decide how the case should be handled.

Such a situation should be a matter of concern for all Mauritians. It is in the interest of each and every person that the authorities act under the law and are subject to the law. It is not for them to pick and choose when to comply with the Rule of Law and when they are allowed to derogate from legal norms and express provisions of the law.

* There is also the case of the ongoing Sri Lankan nationals held in Diego Garcia. How do you look at this issue against the backdrop of the debate of an Indian naval base in Agalega and the ongoing realignment of players in the Indian Ocean?

Under Mauritian law and international law, as expounded by an overwhelming majority of judges of the International Court of Justice, the Sri Lankans are presently on Mauritian territory. However, until Mauritius can assert its effective sovereignty over that part of our territory, we do not have the means to exercise our sovereign rights and duties there.

I understand that the British authorities have argued that when they ratified the international treaty on refugees, they did not extend the application of the treaty to the so-called British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and that consequently they do not have a legal obligation to comply with any international obligations with regard to the Sri Lankans currently on the Chagos. Mauritius can only add its voice to that of the international community to ask the occupying power to act diligently to protect the lives and interests of the Sri Lankans.

* Speaking of the region, new International Financial Centresare now emerging in this part of the world. That does not seem to be good news for our Global Business Sector. What’s happening and what do you think will be their impact on Mauritius?

For the last three decades the Mauritian International Financial centre has been seen as the major IFC on the African continent and indeed for the region. Though South Africa has had a sophisticated financial centre of its own, this was largely a domestic one and not necessarily geared towards cross border investments. However, the Dubai and Casablanca financial centres and more recently the Kigali IFC and now the Nairobi IFC will change the landscape significantly. In addition, the Gujarat International Finance Tech City (GIFT) could be another major player in the region.

The acquisition of leading management companies in the Mauritian global business sector by multinational service providers, the erosion of the tax incentives and shifts in cross border investments already have significant impacts on the business model on which the Mauritian IFC was built over three decades. Both the authorities as well as the operators themselves have to build on the considerable expertise we have acquired during that periodto offer innovative products and services in areas where we have a competitive advantage. But we also need sound regulatory frameworks as well as competent and independent regulators for us to move on to the next chapter of our development as an IFC.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 17 June 2022

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