“Trinidad and Tobago,” I patiently repeated for the second time.
“What?” She frustratingly retorted.
MPs without ministerial portfolios have been given a salary increase of $3,410 in June. However, they are still not happy. Last week, Point Fortin MP Paula Gopee-Scoon, who was still not satisfied, said it was time for the Salaries Review Commission (SRC)—the body which recommended the salary hike for MPs—to go, because they failed to undertake a job evaluation exercise to determine how much MPs should really be paid.
An upset Gopee-Scoon said the SRC should go since they were “totally out of sync with what is taking place.” For decades, Gopee-Scoon said, the SRC had been completely out of touch. “We are getting nowhere. We are spinning top in mud.” Last year, the SRC had recommended the monthly salary of MPs be boosted from $14,000 to $17,410 (before tax), said Oropouche East MP and Housing Minister Dr Roodal Moonilal. Moonilal said he did not know how the SRC arrived at the $3,410 figure.
“That is another bugbear in that there is very little justification on how they arrived at a figure. That entire system, I believe, could be archaic and needs revision and reflection. You are seeing the imbalances appearing in a glaring way.” The last salary increase MPs received was in 2005. There are 41 MPs in the House of Representatives, many of whom were given ministerial portfolios.
The SRC had recommended in its 98th report last year that MPs be stripped of their monthly $4,000 vehicle allowance—their only perk. Moonilal said the ad hoc recommendation to remove the vehicle benefit did not help the image of the SRC and had brought the commission into disrepute. “The SRC should have presented greater scientific evidence on their recommendations,” he added.
He said they sought legal opinion on the SRC’s recommendation on the vehicle allowance “and we got the opinion that it was improper and contrary to law and practice. That is why it was not accepted.” Moonilal said members on both sides also expressed serious misgivings on the SRC’s failure to have a job evaluation exercise done after decades. He felt MPs should be adequately compensated as full-time employees, even though they provided public service.
Though many citizens hold the view that MPs do not do enough and seldom represent constituents, Moonilal begged to differ, stating that MPs had been performing and that their workloads had increased. “If you walk on the street and ask people if politicians should get an increase generally, people would say no. As a matter of fact, they would say cut their salary. MPs are in a category called low-trust professionals. Interestingly, when there is an election there is no shortage of people who want to become politicians.”
Moonilal said T&T’s politicians were measured by presence rather than achievements. “Politicians over the years have undermined effective representation by just walking the road. They made the work of representatives a sort of instant coffee. They had no representation and did not do much, but allowed themselves to be seen. Generally people believe that is representation. People believe that if they open their door Sunday morning and they see you by the gate, you are a good MP.”
What is a reasonable salary for MPs? Moonilal could not say. He said the lack of insurance coverage for MPs was another matter they had been trying to address. Asked if MPs should be full time or part time, Moonilal said: “There is no need to make MPs full time. They are now by definition, with the coming to being of the new Standing Orders, full time. There is no doubt about it, MPs would have to work every single day and maybe at nights in some cases. It’s now a full-time occupation.”
Gopee-Scoon finances hit hard in Opposition
Meanwhile, Gopee-Scoon believes it is time MPs advocate for change within the SRC because of its poor performance. “There must be proper analysis and consultation with constituents, Parliament and MPs. The SRC should have had discussions with MPs in order to understand what their job entails. The SRC has been sitting in their offices without enquiring from constituents about their MPs.” She believes that salaries must be benchmarked and properly evaluated, and that it is the responsibility of the President of T&T to act.
“We would not be in the hot water we are in with pensions and salaries reviews if it was properly addressed at the top. There is too much silence from the President on this matter. In fact, there is only silence on it. He needs to attend to this.” Gopee-Scoon said even the $4,000 travelling allowance given to MPs was too small. “It’s not just about the money. You have to start with what is necessary, what is required, what kind of performance you want and salary you expect.”
She said the $45,000-a-month pay package she used to take home as former foreign affairs minister compared to what she got now as an MP was chalk and cheese. She confessed that her MP’s salary could barely sustain her and that she was often forced to dip into her personal savings to cover her expenses. Gopee-Scoon confessed that her savings had been drying up as an Opposition MP.
Being an MP had not helped her financially, she said. “I have not improved my position in life at all, in addition to which my family life broke up when I became involved in government...I mean my marriage broke up.” Before joining politics, Gopee-Scoon said, she worked in the banking and business sectors.
“Surely I lived much better back then. As an Opposition MP, the private sector refuses to hire you because they only want to be associated with the ruling party. I only started to work part time this year as a lecturer at Costaatt. I only worked two semesters.” She said people didn’t understand what representation really meant. “When you are in Opposition you have to depend on Government. You don’t have funds and operate without a budget.”
Hypolite: MPs should be paid $30,000 monthly
Laventille West MP Nileung Hypolite argued that MPs should be paid in line with their counterparts throughout the world. “I think an MP should be paid $30,000 a month.” He said MPs put in long hours at constituency offices, on the ground, at committee meetings and in Parliament and as such, should be paid adequately.
Ramdial: There’s room for improvement
Couva North UNC MP Ramona Ramdial agreed that the job of an MP was full time and that they should be properly compensated. Asked if she felt MPs really worked for the money they were demanding, Ramdial replied, “Yes.” She did not state what would be the right figure, but added that there was definitely “need for improvement in what we get right now.” She said MPs worked without a health plan and pension package.
Ramdial said when she resigned as a teacher, she gave up her health insurance. “At the end of the day, terms and conditions of work need to exist.”
Warner agrees SRC should do review
Chaguanas West MP Jack Warner, meanwhile, has agreed that the SRC needs to do a comparative study on MPs’ salaries. “I think a performance criteria should be drafted.” Warner said it was baffling how the Leader of the THA was paid more money than the Opposition Leader, and the mayor of Port-of-Spain had a bigger pay package than MPs. The Independent Liberal Party chairman said if the SRC had demanded proper representation from MPs “several ministers would not have been in Parliament today.”
Warner said you could not give MPs small salaries and expect proper representation. “If they don’t perform, you have the choice of recall. And you make laws where they cannot have two jobs.” Warner said 90 per cent of the time MPs did not work for their money.
He said constituents had high expectations of their MPs after a general election, but they were seldom represented. “I am in total agreement with a salary increase for MPs, but it must be justified.”
An adequate salary for MPs, Warner said, would be $25,000. He was, however, fixed in his view that “people should know what they are getting themselves into before they become MPs.” “If they know they can’t make sacrifices, then do not offer yourself to do public service. There are people who would tell you that they would have to make an appointment a year in advance in order to see their MP, and when you go to their office the secretary will tell you come back in a year’s time.”
Samuel: They will treat you like a dog
Arima MP and Minister of National Diversity and Social Integration Rodger Samuel said MPs could never be compensated for the work they put in. Samuel, who won his seat under a Congress of the People ticket, said his day started at 5 am and sometimes ended 20 hours later, just to serve the people.
“Let me tell you something, tomorrow morning if you are no longer an MP nobody cares about you. They will treat you like a dog. As a matter of fact, the moment there is an election and if you lose, nobody cares about you. I am not saying it out of ill-will. “If you are not careful this job could destroy your families. That is why a certain calibre of people do not want to get involved in this profession.”
Samuel said anything offered to MPs “would be better than what MPs are receiving now. I believe MPs should be given their just due.” Political scientist Dr Hamid Ghany said the SRC’s chief flaw was recommending salaries for MPs without an evaluation exercise. While MPs thought they had been performing, Ghany said, the public disagreed. “A lot of people do not understand all of the functions that a member of the House of Representatives perform,” Ghany said.
He said the work of some MPs went unnoticed, while others who had deep pockets received publicity. “Constituents still do not know where their MP’s office is, while others don’t know if their MP has an office. There is a communication problem, Parliament needs to communicate more effectively the location of offices and where people can go to access their MPs.” Overall, Ghany said, MPs had been performing.
“People have formed the perception that they don’t perform. Where is that perception coming from? Is it that they are gauging it on what the output is? Who is making those kinds of comment?” Ghany said the workload of MPs had increased due to frequent Parliament sittings. A few months ago, Ghany said, the Constitutional Commission, of which he was a member, made a recommendation for Members of the House of Representatives not to be made ministers.
“We wanted full-time Parliamentarians to devote their time to their constituencies.” Ghany said the report was sent to Cabinet, but he could not say what was the outcome. He said the new Standing Orders would take effect in the next few weeks. “Those Standing Orders will fundamentally change the way that MPs will function and the numbers of committees they are going to have. They are going to become real challenges. The duties of an MP will be increased even more. You will have that reality to face.”
Jeffrey: MPs’ jobs taken for granted
Long-standing La Brea MP Fitzgerald Jeffrey said his job as an MP had been a “labour of love.” Before offering himself to the PNM, Jeffrey said, he was principal of the Palo Seco Secondary School, where he got a salary similar to the one he now took home.
The difference between being a principal and a politician, Jeffrey said, was the stress. “The stress as a principal was far less and so too was the work.”
Having served as a junior minister in the Ministry of Science and Technology, Jeffrey said “it was tough having to deal with a ministerial portfolio and seeing about my constituents at the same time. My family suffered tremendously.” Jeffrey said the SRC arrived at a salary for the MPs through imaginative deduction. “They take MPs’ jobs for granted.”