House committee on OC not right

Editorial, Normal

The National –Wednesday, January 5, 2011

 PARLIAMENT passed on voices the motion to form a parliamentary committee on the ombudsman so it is uncertain who voted for, who voted against and who abstained.

It would be interesting to know because now one member of parliament is calling for the abolition of this committee.

Governor Bob Danaya of Western told the media this week that he wanted the committee to be disbanded because it could very well act to deter the Ombudsman Commission from conducting investigations into the duties, functions and responsibilities of politicians as it is tasked to do by the constitution.

Danaya said it seemed odd and improper that such a committee was formed to monitor the work of the ombudsman when the OC was tasked to deal with misconduct by leaders.

At a time when many leaders, including Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, have been referred by this body for investigation by leadership tribunals, the existence of such a committee could be seen by the public as creating a perfect opportunity for politicians to interfere with the work of the OC.

While no institution should be allowed to operate without proper checks and balances, it would appear to us that a parliamentary committee is not the proper candidate to monitor the work of the OC.

Danaya is right. Perhaps, another body with far more neutral membership can form an ombudsman board to deal with complaints against the OC.

Parliament has shown itself to be singularly inept at remaining impartial on matters pertaining to its membership.

Take, for instance, the case of salaries and conditions of members of parliament. 

Once upon a time, a far more neutral body headed by a judge and comprising members of the public service, as well as parliamentarians, set the terms and conditions of employment for parliamentarians, judges, constitutional office holders and senior civil servants.

Then, under the direction of the then speaker of parliament Dennis Young, this body was brought directly under parliament and its membership. The chairman was the speaker himself and comprised almost exclusively of parliamentarians.

You can imagine what happened next. The terms and conditions started going up and up and up.

In November last year, parliament, as a last act before it rose for a six-month break, awarded itself a 52% pay rise.

The question is not whether or not it is deserved and needed. It is just plain not right for leaders of this land to be awarding themselves increases in salaries while awards for many public sector workers remain outstanding.

If these workers had the power to award themselves increases, they would do so as the politicians have done. 

The entire place would be bankrupt if this was the practice but, mercifully, it is not.

Take another example of self-interest overriding all other concerns.

In 1982, then prime minister Sir Michael decided to award K10,000 to each member of parliament every year for them to use at their discretion under what was then humbly termed the village services scheme.

Because it was left to parliament to elect how much this amount would be, the amount increased to K20,000, then double that and onto K100,000, to K500,000 and then K1.5 million.

Today, under the grand title of district services improvement programme, each electorate is awarded K2 million a year.

With MPs in complete charge of electing how much they get, these amounts can easily sky-rocket to K5 million per electorate or greater until half the budget is controlled by parliamentarians. Really, the sky is the limit.

Human nature will always dictate in matters where there is self-interest. That is why there are checks and balances in every democracy, regardless of how cumbersome and time-consuming they might be.

That is where there is an Ombudsman Commission, a creature created by the constitution, to check excesses and abuse of powers by leaders.

To have parliament create a committee to keep a check on the OC is to initiate the beginning of a process which will see the end of this institution. With its demise, there will be absolutely nothing to stop leaders from abusing their duties, powers and privileges at will. 

Already parliament has legislated to regulate and reduce the powers of the OC. Next, it will be calling commissioners before the parliamentary committee to intimate them into under-performing their tasks.

This must not be allowed  and every good MP, such as Danaya, has a duty to the people to abolish this committee.