By Jasmyn Sargeant
Let’s time travel back to about a month ago when the media was buzzing with the tax exemption on Motor Vehicles. Understandably, it frustrated you and other citizens who are experiencing the economic hardships that have been brought on by COVID-19. I pondered on this whole episode that took over local social media. I thought of a word that is often used but we may not understand the true meaning of it. Democracy.
The word is lent by the Greek which means “the rule of the people”. The rule of the people means that citizens control their country and how their country is governed instead of a ruling monarchy or dictatorship. This “rule” does not only apply around election time but the Government has a responsibility to be accountable to the citizens.
We entrust politicians we elect to make the best decisions for us, as a country. This does not mean that their actions or lack thereof are above public scrutiny. As a citizen/ resident and/or electorate in Trinidad and Tobago, you have the right to question our Government AND our Parliament (not all countries have that right) using different mediums like the courts, media, petitions, protests and more. So, let’s get deeper into this issue.
Tax Exemption on Motor Vehicles
The Salary Review Commission (SRC) is given its power under sections 140 & 141 of the Constitution to review the salaries of certain Government officials; Members of the Parliament, Judges and Senators. In 2013, the Commission issued a Report which proposed to implement a maximum allowance of $173,000 exemption of taxes on the purchase of Motor Vehicles for the Government and Parliament officials, of which would be inclusive of Motor Vehicle Tax, Customs Duties and VAT. To provide context, there was no cap on the benefit from these tax exemption for these persons before. The report was moved in the Lower House (House of Representatives) on February 21st, 2014 and the House at that time included a coalition government (The People’s Partnership) and the Opposition (the People’s National Movement and the Independent Liberal Party).
Many members felt as if the SRC did not take into account the arduous jobs of MPs and they felt as if they could never be fully compensated for their tasks. While the Opposition at the time was in strong disagreement with the entire report, the Government only found issues with the transport facilities and therefore after a vote for the simple majority, the proposals were passed except those suggestions on transport facilities. Therefore the Parliamentarians continued to receive a “discount” on the purchase of motor vehicles.
Fast forward now to the most recent Appropriation Bill, more commonly known as the budget. In the budget there were some austere measures taken to stimulate the economy amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. An understanding of such can be dissected here. One notable policy change was the increase in the Motor Vehicle Tax which would not apply to Cabinet, Judges and Parliamentarians due to their special tax exemption. There were reductions in neither salary nor privileges for the law makers, ‘just vibes’.
In other jurisdictions that follow the Westminster model, like ours, Government officials took pay cuts to stand in solidarity with their citizens as they endure the hardships brought on by the pandemic. Two notable countries are New Zealand and India who took such a decision.In Trinidad and Tobago no such decision was made.
It should be brought to the attention of the reader that the funds used to purchase these vehicles are from the politicians’ personal funds, not state funds unless given a loan by the state. So, certain politicians may argue that this is a small compensation for their work and/ or that they need to have a vehicle to move around their constituencies. However, recent reports show that they, members from both sides, were exempted from millions of dollars worth of taxes, with some taking advantage of the exemption every 2 years. This juxtaposed with the increase on Motor Vehicle Tax and on complaints of several citizens of being blatantly overcharged by the Customs Officers on imports (from undisclosed sources), comes across as if we, the people, are in this economic hardship alone, feeling the full brunt of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is noteworthy that certain members of the opposition voiced their support for the removal of the tax exemption in the recent budget debates. Yet, the majority of the debate concerning the exemption involved a blame game from both sides, even though they both used the benefit to their advantage. The Prime Minister suggested that he would propose a $350,000 cap on the exemption allowed to Parliamentarians and Cabinet ministers (a big leap from the $173,000 originally proposed by the SRC). He also stated that the exemptions for the Judiciary will remain in place.
As a concerned citizen I endeavoured to share my plight to my respective Member of Parliament on which I still have no response after three emails. I decided to find out when there would be a Public Meeting and I was told that the Member has not restarted his Public Meeting for the new term even though it’s four months post his re-election. Up to the point of publishing this article, no response was given nor a day indicated after following up.
Do we still not live in a democracy? Furthermore, why do MPs need a new car every two years? The lifespan of a vehicle is surely not less than 5 years, to be underestimating. How do we assure transparency of this process so that vehicles do not go to relatives, close friends or ‘for a favour’? Why is it that in this time of ‘austerity’, politicians must continue to live life as normal or as luxuriously when the majority of the country is not? As citizens, taxpayers and electorates, we’re entitled to get answers to these questions.
The Government has to report to us, they have to be accountable to us. The role of a Member of Parliament is to voice the interests and concerns of their constituents, primarily through the legislative process. This is done in Parliament where officials can comment and debate publicly. This is why we saw a Member of Parliament stand and voice the concerns of Trinbagonian citizens and residents in his Constituency in England in the House of Commons in London, actual Westminster.
So, just complaining amongst ourselves is not the solution. When we start exercising the measures afforded to us to hold the Government accountable is when we could start calling ourselves a democracy. That is, unless the Members choose to ignore our concerns, which would be dangerous to the “rule of the people”.
To conclude, considering:
- my personal attempts to express my concerns to my MP were futile,
- there has been no feedback on the $350,000.00 cap proposed by the Prime Minister,
- the emotions of the citizens seemed to have virtually disappeared in spite just a month ago occupying space across social media timelines and newspapers; and
- this situation joining a series of actions by politicians from both sides that cause public concern and were subsequently ignored,
only one question is left in my mind.
Is democracy dying?
General review of salaries and other terms and conditions of service of offices within the purview of the salaries review commission. (2013). [online] Salary Review Commission of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, pp.197–225. Available at: http://www.ttparliament.org/documents/2225.pdf.
Roy, E.A. (2020). Jacinda Ardern and ministers take pay cut in solidarity with those hit by Covid-19. The Guardian. [online] 15 Apr. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/15/jacinda-ardern-and-ministers-take-20-pay-cut-in-solidarity-with-those-hit-by-covid-19.
News18. (2020). President, PM, MPs to Take 30% Pay Cut for 1 Year as Covid-19 Infects Economy; MPLAD Funds Suspended. [online] Available at: https://www.news18.com/news/india/president-kovind-pm-modi-mps-to-take-30-pay-cut-for-1-year-as-economic-crisis-looms-amid-covid-19-pandemic-2566649.html.
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