Hype over hikes | Daily News

Hype over hikes

A prospective salary increase for all parliamentarians has become an issue that has generated much discussion in recent weeks and is unlikely to increase the popularity of any of the major political parties, even as national elections loom on the horizon.

The catalyst for this controversy was the recent salary increase granted to judicial officers. There has been a tradition of increasing the salaries of parliamentarians whenever the salaries of judicial officers were revised. Hence the expectation of a wage increase for the nation’s legislators and the resultant debate about it.

The salary revision for judicial officers came about after the Cabinet appointed a committee to inquire into the wages of judges of all categories last year. The committee was headed by Cabinet Secretary Sumith Abeysinghe and included Justice Ministry Secretary Padmasiri Jayamanna and Director General of Establishments W. D. Somadasa.

This was after Justice Minister Thalatha Atukorale sought Cabinet approval to create a new salary structure for judicial officers as well as officers attached to the Attorney General’s Department and the Legal Draftsman’s Department. In her memorandum to the Cabinet on the subject Minister Atukorale noted that ‘difficulties were being experienced in recruiting and retaining required officers due to the inadequacy of existing salaries and other privileges’.

The increases recommended by the committee were substantial. For example, it was recommended that the salary and allowances of a High Court Judge be increased from Rs 168,894 to Rs 304,200 and that of a District Judge be increased from Rs 151,424 to Rs 269,300. Comparable increases were recommended for all other categories of officers.

Economic hardships

The committee however deferred a decision on salary increases to judges of the superior courts- the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal- to Parliament as the emoluments of the Chief Justice and the Judges of the superior courts have to be determined by Parliament.

Cabinet subsequently approved the salary increases on February 20 this year. This was also to include increases to the salaries of judges of the superior courts, with the changes becoming effective retrospectively from January 1, 2018. This was presented to Parliament in late March this year and was unanimously passed in Parliament without a debate.

The Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella inquired into the possibility of approving the motion and Joint Opposition (JO) MP Bandula Gunawardena said his group was agreeable. No objections were raised from the other opposition groups as well.

Since then, because of the past convention of coupling increases to salaries of judicial officers to that of parliamentarians, there have been expectations of a pay hike for the latter. Previously, the salary of a Member of Parliament has been linked to that of a High Court Judge, the salary of a deputy minister to that of a Judge of the Court of Appeal and a Cabinet minister’s salary equated to a Supreme Court Judge.

However, such an increase did not occur automatically. That was because this was only a practice that had been adopted in the past and not a provision that had been legislated for. Also, it was not pushed through with alacrity as all political parties would have been mindful of the economic hardships being imposed on the general public in the form of recent price increases in essential items and a raft of new taxes.

However, the matter had been the subject of discussion in the corridors of power last month. The Leader of the House and Public Enterprise Development Minister Lakshman Kiriella was quoted as saying that there were no objections at a party leaders’ meeting to the proposed pay hike of parliamentarians in line with the salary scales of judicial officers.

Kiriella said Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, Deputy Chairman of Committees Selvam Adaikkalanathan and party representatives such as Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran, Ministers Mahinda Samarasinghe, Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mano Ganeshan, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the JO’s parliamentary group leader Dinesh Gunawardena and Eelam Peoples’ Democratic Party leader Douglas Devananda, attended the meeting.

Since then, there have been varied reports about the proposed wage hike for parliamentarians, generating much debate in the media. Most of the feedback has been negative, with the public being critical of such an increase for legislators at a time when they are being asked to pay more taxes, tighten their purse strings and grin and bear it.

The JVP, as a party, has opposed the proposed move to raise salaries of parliamentarians. “The government is claiming that the economy is in crisis and selling state property including ports and airports to attract investors. We wonder how the government would raise funds to increase salaries if the economy is in crisis,” JVP parliamentarian Sunil Handuneththi inquired. How could salaries of legislators be increased when taxes are being increased on vehicles with smaller engine capacities, he asked.

The response from various sections of the government has not been edifying, however. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has said that there was no final decision on the proposed salary hike to ministers and parliamentarians. Jayasuriya has referred the matter to Parliament Secretary General Dhammika Dasanayake for his recommendations. “A decision as to whether or not salaries should be increased has to be made by the party leaders”, Speaker Jayasuriya has said.

If the Speaker’s comments suggested that no final decision has been taken on the issue, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera- whose ministry has to find funds for a pay hike, if it materialises- has been categorical in his opposition to it.

Legislators’ salaries Vs. judicial officers’

Minister Samaraweera was questioned about the proposed increase and said that he personally opposed the move. The Minister acknowledged that there has been a convention of linking legislators’ salaries with those of judicial officers. “Regardless of who discusses this, it has to come to the Treasury for approval”, Samaraweera pointed out.

President Maithripala Sirisena too has been quite unequivocal in his opposition to the proposed wage increase for parliamentarians. “I will not allow a salary increase to parliamentarians even by five cents,” he said addressing a meeting in Polonnaruwa, his hometown.

Some parliamentarians have individually expressed their opposition to the move. These include Ajith Mannaperuma from the United National Party (UNP) and the JO’s Shehan Semasinghe. However, they have clearly articulated that they were stating their own views and not the official positions of their respective parties.

As a result, speculation continues about the proposed salary increments. This is partly because it has been the practice since 2006 to raise salaries of parliamentarians whenever those of judicial officers are increased. However, another contributing factor to the continuing controversy is the lack of a clear-cut, definitive official government announcement on this issue.

It has been pointed out that the major party in the opposition benches, the JO, which is usually critical of almost every move undertaken by the government, has remained unusually silent on this matter. There have been no media conferences called to denounce the proposed pay hike, in order to score brownie points with the electorate.

At a time when national elections are less than two years away and political parties should be seen to woo the public with measures that would allay their concerns, this is a controversy they could do without. However, this is an issue which may land not only the government in political hot water, it could burn the opposition too.

 


 

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