Monday, May 06, 2013

The moral argument.

Both sides of the debate on whether the battle between Parliament and the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) regarding the demand by Parliamentarians to have their salaries and perks renewed to the levels enjoyed by the Tenth Parliament are instructive. Mithika Linturi and Justin Muturi, among other parliamentarians, rely on the provisions of the Constitution and the law of Kenya to make their case. In some aspects, their arguments are persuasive. The other side, too, relies on the Constitution, and their arguments, too, are persuasive. However, it is when interested parties such as the Confederation of Trade Unions (COTU) and the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) enter the fray that things get murky.

Francis Atwoli, COTU's Secretary-General, is adamant that he does not support a pay-rise for parliamentarians; he merely worries that if the SRC can "cut down" the pay of parliamentarians, it might set the stage for "unconstitutional" cuts in workers' pay, whether in the public or private sectors. This is the same fear that Wilson Sossion of KNUT echoes; he states that if the SRC can reduce the MPs' pay, they can do the same for the hundreds of thousands of teachers in the union, even where a Collective Bargaining Agreement has been struck between the union and the government regarding the pay-and-benefits of teachers.

Some have attempted to argue their case in moral terms, on both sides of the debate. On this ground alone, the MPs do not have a leg to stand on. Nicholas Gumbo, an engineer representing Rarieda Constituency, attempts to argue that MPs work even when they are asleep. They receive so many monetary claims that it would be immoral for the SRC to cut their pay to such an amount that they cannot contribute to the medical and funeral expenses, among many others, of their constituents. He argues that the representation provided by the MP extends beyond making the case in Parliament; that MPs when they go about their duties, work long hours and cover many expenses that the proposals by the SRC amount to interfering with MPs' mandates to represent their peoples.

Okiya Omtatah, the indefatigable civil society activist who has gone to court to challenge the move by Parliament to raise their pay-and-perks to pre-March 2013 levels, argues that MPs have the option of challenging the SRC decision in the High Court. He also points out that MPs' pay-and-perks amount to over a million shillings, quite above what the Tenth Parliament enjoyed, which was around sh 850,000. He points out that it is unconstitutional for MPs to determine their pay-and-perks: that is the preserve of the SRC, an independent constitutional commission. Any MP who feels aggrieved by the decision of the SRC can only challenge it in court, not by passing motions after motions in Parliament.

The moral angle of the debate must be pursued to its logical conclusion, though. The difference between MPs and other workers is that MPs actively sought the votes of their constituents in order to sit in the august house. The qualifications to be elected as an MP are set out in the Constitution and the Elections Act. For the most part, they revolve around moral issues, rather than technical ones. MPs, despite their arguments, are not the same as other workers. It is for this reason, and the history of MPs' demands over the years, that when Kenyans ratified the Constitution in 2010, they did so knowing that the Constitution would prevent MPs from setting their own terms and conditions of office. MPs had abused that privilege and Kenyans were united in agreeing with the Committee of Experts' position, that an independent body would review and set the terms and conditions of service for MPs. It is immoral for the MPs to argue that they can usurp a power that the people of Kenya granted specifically to the SRC. It is immoral for them to demand a class or status that they do not deserve; the Constitution proclaims the people to be supreme, sovereign; it is improper for MPs to declare that they are supreme, sovereign above the people they must serve.

In a nation where millions go hungry daily, and in a nation where hundreds of thousands live under the fear of starvation or banditry attacks, MPs receiving millions per month have no moral basis for demanding more from the same people when they have security and food on the table in some of the finest establishments in Kenya. Where is it written that they must purchase homes in Nairobi or that they must swan around in swanky limousines paid for by hardworking Kenyans? They could live in rented houses and drive the shit-boxes hundreds of thousands of Kenyans have to make do with. If they are dissatisfied with the terms and conditions that the SRC has laid out for them, and they think that they deserve the millions they are demanding, perhaps it is time they resigned their seats and took their chances in the harsh world of private enterprise.

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