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Of Entitlements, SUV Vehicles, and Other Things

By Harini Amarasuriya

Over the past several days, the one question I have been asked most frequently has been: “Did you order a vehicle? Are you going to accept the luxury vehicle ordered by the Government for parliamentarians?” By now, the National People’s Power (NPP) has made its position clear on this issue. We feel that this is most certainly not a priority at this time and that the import of vehicles must be halted immediately. MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader of the JVP, one of the political parties in the NPP and leader of our parliamentary group, made a detailed statement, questioning the entire deal and made two specific recommendations: either let the LC that has been opened lapse (it has been done previously) or sell the vehicles in an open auction and use the money for the COVID effort. However, the questions keep coming and public anger on this issue is palpable.

Certainly, various comments made by members of the Government have not helped. One minister claimed that since this will be purchased through a LC, the Government will not be spending the country’s money and that if the Government does not use the LC facility at this point, it would be a waste! That was an extraordinary display of downright ignorance at best or an incredible insult to the intelligence of the Sri Lankan public. Various others have been justifying the need for MPs to have vehicles to engage in work on behalf of the public. Some MPs, it was claimed are forced to travel by bus. One Minister complained that he only had three vehicles at his disposal and that they were of poor quality. Images of the luxurious vehicles currently used by MPs and Ministers circulating in the media made these spokespersons look out of touch, petulant and completely insensitive to the public mood at this time.

So why this public anger? The luxurious lifestyle of many public representatives (and their families) is not a new phenomenon, so why is this particular episode generating such public fury? Perhaps the timing of this issue has something to do with it. At a time when the general public is dealing with immense problems coping with COVID, the decision by the Government to export luxury vehicles for MPs is not just incomprehensible, but jaw-droppingly callous. We hear of the sufferings of COVID patients and medical professionals struggling to stretch inadequate resources on a daily basis. We are short of everything from beds to medication to oxygen. Travel restrictions have severely affected people’s livelihoods, especially those in the informal sector, those dependant on small businesses, those who are self-employed and on daily wages. The education of thousands of young people has been disrupted and families are struggling to provide online access to young people to access education. On top of the problems linked to the COVID pandemic, the sudden fertiliser ban has severe implications for the farming community. The X-Press Pearl ship tragedy has devastated the livelihoods of the fishing community. The Government seems unable or unwilling to deal with any of these problems, Parliament is unable or unwilling to do anything – so, naturally, the vehicle fiasco provided a perfect reason for the public to vent their anger on parliamentarians.

This issue is indicative however of a much larger issue: that is, the nature of public service, and the privileges and entitlements of public representatives. Elected representatives are expected to do a job and they must be provided with the resources to do their job. This could include a salary, staff and even a vehicle if necessary. However, what are the limits to these entitlements and how can elected representatives be held accountable for the perks of their job? In most developed democracies for instance, there are strict guidelines on how much an elected representative can spend or claim as expenses. These are publicly audited and the information is made available to the public. There have been many instances in different parts of the world where politicians have had to resign due to controversies over expenses or have been held to account. Most recently, the media reported how the Finnish Prime Minister is facing scrutiny over what she has claimed as expenses for breakfast while in her official residence. Yet, there are still problems with accountability and transparency, since many of these ‘perks’ and ‘entitlements’ are invisible to the public. For instance, how do you declare a luxury holiday paid for by your ‘good friend’ who is a wealthy businessperson?

Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, we do not have even a minimum system of scrutiny and accountability on the entitlements and privileges of elected representatives. And it is not only elected representatives who are not subject to scrutiny, although they get away with much more than other public officers. For instance, what is the level of scrutiny and accountability of the privileges and entitlements of senior defence officers? There are huge gaps in the lifestyles of senior military officers and other positions in military. Most entitlements in the public sector are in the form of allowances – which are difficult to monitor. Yet, there has been little public scrutiny or discussion on these matters or an effort to implement a more transparent system of compensation within the public sector.

The issue of vehicles is in my view, quite unique to the Sri Lankan context. It is more a statement that about fulfilling a need. Obtaining a chauffeur driven car (fancier the better) is a sign of prestige and symbol of power. If you also have someone who opens doors for you and carries your belongings – so much the better. It shows the world that you are Somebody Important, someone with Power. If not, what is the purpose for anyone who barely qualified as a VIP to be provided with security? Even Vice-Chancellors of universities have security to fling open doors for them and to stand outside their office presumably to protect them from obstreperous students and eccentric colleagues! And let us not forget that this is twelve years after the war ended! When VIPs (and I use the term VIP extremely liberally here) are provided with security, is this based on a risk assessment? If not, then what is the justification?

The image of power that these trappings (fancy car, chauffeur, security, etc.) communicate is in my view inextricably linked to the culture of political patronage, the idea of the politician or Important Person as patron to the less powerful. It is linked to the idea of the politician as patron who distributes largesse to his or her loyal supporters. Hence the list of honorifics that are compulsory when introducing a speaker or guest at an event in this country; the pomp and pageantry that accompanies every event; the ugly spectacle of young people falling on their knees to worship adults that they barely know, let alone respect. These symbols and displays of power are as important to the receiver as much as the audience. We look to politicians to distribute favours in return for our support. We like politicians who are larger than life, who stand out from the crowd and who throw their weight around. As a politician representing a party that has tried to do things differently, I know that we have certainly not won any extra points (or votes) for the fact that we have rejected many of the privileges to which we are entitled or because we play by the rules and expect our supporters to play by the rules as well!

Public outrage that has erupted over the vehicle fiasco of this Government, is in my view, a good opportunity to reflect on how we, the public, also feed the sense of entitlement and privilege that politicians feel is their due. How we seem to respect and admire aggressive displays of power. How when it is serves us, we all look for loopholes to avoid playing by the rules or search for ways to obtain favours. Let us not forget that politicians reflect societal values – these are elected representatives.

The main problem is how we have allowed for politics to become a path to riches rather than a public service. Today, most enter politics as an extension of the family business or to establish a family business. In fact, this is why most people seek high office in this country – not just in politics, but in all sectors. By all means, people need to be compensated for the work that they do and they need to be provided with resources and perhaps even incentives to do their work well. But, a politician is not just any other public officer – a politician is a people’s representative. And as people’s representatives, we cannot set ourselves up on pedestals or be so removed from the lives of people that we can no longer represent or relate to the people who elected us. When we complain about having to use public transport, or justify luxury vehicles as essential to perform our jobs, we are displaying how alienated we have become from the people we are expected to serve. That alienation affects the policy choices we make: whether we choose to invest in public transport or provide a tax cut to car importers; whether we buy equipment for rural hospitals or gyms; whether we provide adequate toilets for schools or woo foreign universities to establish a local branch. Those choices will reflect our priorities and whose needs we pay attention to the most. The choices made by this Government and those who defend and justify these choices are showing us with shining clarity, exactly who and what they are prioritising. One thing is clear: it is certainly not the vast majority of those who voted them into power.