Wednesday, February 24, 2010

17 Proposed Parliamentary Seats- Why it should not be passed by Parliament.

As recently highlighted in the media, in the upcoming parliamentary sitting, the government is going to table a bill proposing to introduce seventeen new constituencies, and hence parliamentary seats.

 The Chairman of the Constituency Boundaries Commission (CBC) has clearly stated that according to the section 54 (4) of the Constitution of Solomon Islands, "(p)arliament may, by resolution, approve or reject the recommendations of the Constituency Boundaries Commission but may not vary them; and, if so approved, the recommendations shall have effect as from the next dissolution of Parliament". Thus, Parliament only has the power to 'pass or defeat' the bill but it will not change the principle contents of the bill. This is a constitutional requirement that Parliament must abide to.

 For many Solomon Islanders the introduction of seventeen new seats in our Parliament is a positive development because now they will be able to benefit more from the constituency funds such as Rural Constituency Development Fund (RCDF), and the Millennium Development Fund (MDF), the Rural Livelihood Fund (RLF), the Micro-Project Development Fund (MPDF) and the ROC Constituency Micro-Project Fund (ROC-CMPF). This is because demarcating the current constitutional boundaries would mean reducing the number of people within each constituency hence increasing the real economic gains of constituents when properly and effectively utilising such funds.

 Population, as stated in section 54 (3) of the Constitution is one of, if not the main criterion that the CBC has relied on to reach its decision for the additional seventeen constituencies. This is indeed a valid consideration as population size is the main determinant of how fair public funds are distributed and expended within each constituency, especially in ensuing the constitutional principle …"that the number of inhabitants of each constituency shall be as nearly equal as is reasonably practicable" is upheld.

 At the outset, given the Constitutional mandate of the CBC, the validity of the proposed constituencies is unquestionable. The CBC is mandated by the section 54 (2) of the Constitution to…"review the number and boundaries of the constituencies whenever they consider this to be desirable and shall do so not later than ten years after they last reviewed them…" Hence, the Constitutional validity and correctness of the proposed constituencies is one that requires no further reckoning.

 However, on the other hand it is an issue that requires thoughtful consideration by all stakeholders and more especially the government of the day and future governments for that matter. We have come a long way and thirty-one years on our economy is still striving to gain real momentum for progress. Economic growth is low, if not stagnant or declining. The country's economic base remains weak and fragile and we are still miles away from creating an environment that boosts investor confidence and one that is conducive to entrepreneurial creativity and innovation. Our balance of trade is unfavourable and we are caught up in the vicious cycle of dependency and heavy reliance on our donor partners' financial deliverance.

 Our economy is in a sad state and literally public expenditure has continued to rise while revenue generation continues to be slow and in some sectors worryingly declining. Therefore, while the economics of the proposed new constituencies is not a constitutional prerequisite to decision making by CBC, it is a moral factor that requires serious contemplation. Undoubtedly, it is a very expensive exercise and the government and parliament for that matter must be cautious in their actions to ensure our ailing economy is stretched no further than how it is now.

 Even with the current fifty constituencies, governing the country is already a very expensive exercise. For instance, taking the 2009 Parliamentary Entitlements Regulations into consideration, an individual ordinary Member of Parliament requires around SBD$200 000 a year for salary and other entitlements. This amount subsequently increases if an MP becomes a Minister or holds any other responsible position within parliament or government. This excludes the ex-gratia and terminal grants which together amounts to SBD$200, 000 for an individual Member within a parliamentary term. In addition, to subsidise development within a single constituency through the specified funds as the RCDF, MDF, RLF, MPDF and the ROC-CMPF, it requires more than SBD$2 million a year. So apparently, as it stands, the amount of money spent for each of the fifty constituency each year, including the entitlement of each constituency's respective ordinary Member of Parliament and the various development funds is more than SBD$2.5 million, which means that for a whole term of parliament the tax payers and donors have to provide more than SBD$10 million for each constituency to ensure that Solomon Islands is governed and that development is fairly distributed among the constituencies. This, as we know, is exclusive of the recurrent expenditure incurred in the normal functions and operations of government which makes up the biggest proportions of expenditure borne by the tax payers of Solomon Islands, both in the public and private sector.

 And as recently reported in the media, for the proposed additional seventeen Constituencies, the country will need to generate an additional amount of SBD$46.7 million a year to finance the undertaking. This is a lot of money that tax payers have to incur if the proposal is passed by Parliament. Indeed, the economic and social implications of the proposal are worrying for the private sector. For if parliament is to pass the proposal and hence finance it, much of the costs will be borne by the private sector, through increased taxes, rates and so forth and in a situation where investor confidence is low, such an objective would be highly detrimental for Solomon Islands in the long run.

 The focus Solomon Islands needs now is not so much for the increase of governance instruments, but on improving the state of our economy, through increased investor confidence and empowerment of current market tools that have been put in place to boost private sector investment and governmental initiatives that would help to stimulate growth in the economy.

 Hence, it would have been beneficial for Solomon Islanders if the CBC would have also make moral considerations, based on the economics and public-value perspectives of the issue, rather than just limiting their consideration around constitutional prerequisites. In the current state of our weakening economy this is necessary, for the issue of increasing public expenditure in light of our ailing economy was the major factor of consideration that resulted in the nullification of the Parliamentary Entitlement Commission's decision to award $50 000 for a spouse of a Member of Parliament as terminal grant previously. Hence, why has CBC seen it fit to come up with an expensive proposal just a few months after the previous PEC decision was nullified? This argument is still alive and true for Solomon Islands and will remain so for many more years to come. Logically, the CBC should have been strong to counter external influences and should have only allocated new constituencies where they are needed most than to succumb to all requests they have received and even going a step further by proposing demarcations where no proposals were received from particular provinces. This is ignorant practice and must be discouraged.

 There has never been a time more crucial in the history of parliamentary democracy in Solomon Islands that calls for responsible leadership that now. The people are divided over whether to support or oppose the proposal, given its mixed attributes. But one thing is clear, that our economy will not be able to afford and sustain an additional seventeen seats. The private sector is only beginning to recover and even the income-generation capacity of government has not improved.

 So, indeed while the proposal is genuine given its constitutional affirmations, the government and parliament are also morally obliged to act responsibly, and thoroughly consider both the economical and public-value aspects of venturing into such a very expensive undertaking. The gravity of the economic implications of the proposed new constituencies calls for rational judgment than one that is based on constitutional shrewdness or political ambitions. It calls for responsible governance based on public value and the economic morality, measuring against the values of representative democracy and political absolutism. The government therefore must tread carefully in considering the recommendation of the Commission.


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