The Supreme Court has ruled that the government violated the Constitution by raising taxes without seeking the Parliament’s approval.
This is a landmark verdict. But the verdict should not be seen as a loss for the government. Nor should it be seen as a win for the opposition party. In fact it should be seen, and celebrated, for what it really is: a resounding victory for the democratic process.
Even so, the government made a mistake – a serious mistake – by imposing taxes unilaterally and, in so doing, violated the Constitution. For that, the government must accept moral responsibility.
Naturally, how the government exercises moral responsibility for their transgressions is their business. It is an internal matter, but one that is important, as it will set the standards for government accountability.
In this instance, however – for imposing taxes unlawfully – the government should just accept that they had made a mistake, apologize for it, and move on.
Apologize and move on, that’s what the government should do.
Instead the government has responded to the Supreme Court’s decision in other ways, all of which is exactly what the government should not do.
First and foremost, the government should not tell people that they have been prevented from raising taxes. That’s not true. The constitutional case did not question the need to raise taxes, including the tax on vehicles.
Taxes are needed, there’s no doubt about that. And taxes must be raised, especially to meet national goals. But taxes can be raised only in accordance with the procedures enshrined in the Constitution. And that’s what the Supreme Court’s verdict is about – how to impose taxes.
The government can and must raise taxes. But when they do so, they, like all of us, must follow the law.
Second, the government should not threaten people that they will not receive electricity or roads or other development work, because they can no longer accept grants and raise loans. Again, not true.
The constitutional case was about the procedure to raise taxes, not about accepting grants or loans. The Supreme Court has even clarified that the government has the authority to accept grants and raise loans.
Third, the government should not claim that the Supreme Court’s verdict has weakened democracy. It has not. On the contrary, the constitutional case and the verdict have strengthened the democratic process. Various institutions – including the Parliament, the ruling party, the opposition, the executive, the media and, most importantly, the judiciary – played their respective roles to safeguard the Constitution and to ensure that its provisions are understood and obeyed.
The constitutional case and the verdicts of the courts have strengthened the rule of law. That surely is good for democracy.
And finally, the government should not threaten to resign. No one has asked for any resignation. Talk about resignation – either individually or en masse – is irresponsible. It is also dangerous. Having threatened resignation the government may find it hard to save face without actually resigning.
A civil servant tells me that the recent salary increase has made him poorer!
How? Because his pay increase barely covers the corresponding increase in the cost of rent, fuel and groceries. This is his statement of expenditure:
We can’t do much about the increase in the cost of fuel and onions. They reflect price hikes in India and have nothing to do with salary increases here.
But we can’t allow rents and the prices of other goods to shoot up every time civil servants get a pay hike. This undermines the whole purpose of a pay increase. And it makes life for employees in the private sector that much more difficult.
Are you a civil servant? If so, has the recent salary increase made you richer or poorer?
Commenting on “No blank cheque!”, one reader, going by the name “justmyview”, asked what I thought about the government’s proposal to create a separate secretariat for energy under the Ministry of Economic Affairs. In particular, “justmyview” asked if the Parliament’s approval was needed to create the proposed secretariat, and elaborated:
Constitution clearly says that addition or reduction of ministry requires approval from parliament but doesn’t say anything about creating secretariat. Whether separate energy secretariat is necessary or not is altogether a different issue, but is it necessary to get parliamentary approval for creating secretariat? This is, yet, another important issue which will set precedence for the future government. Now the question is, should secretariat be treated like ministry? Or are there some differences? So, in this regard, what is honorable OL’s honest view on whether it is necessary to get approval from parliament or not? Who should have a final authority? Should it be with RCSC or Cabinet or parliament?
A week later, and “justmyview” was still waiting for my views:
I am still waiting to hear HOL’s view on constitutionality issue between government and RCSC regarding energy secretariat. Or HOL has no view on this issue?
First things first: Let’s drop that “H” before the “OL”. It serves no purpose.
Now for my views: Does the creation of the proposed energy secretariat need the Parliament’s approval? Yes.
The proposed secretariat will be headed by a secretary to the government and will have a separate PPD and a separate AFD in addition to whatever other departments have been proposed. By this proposal, the energy secretariat will be a secretariat of a ministry. And its structure (AFD, PPD and departments under a secretary) will be like that of any existing secretariat under any ministry.
By placing the proposed secretariat under the Ministry of Economic Affairs, that minister would, in effect, be in charge to two ministries – a ministry of economic affairs, and a ministry of energy. Whether the two secretariats report to two separate ministers or, as proposed, to a common minister, they are essentially two separate secretariats of two separate ministries. And this, incidentally, is exactly what I had said when, more than two years ago, I first heard about the government’s intentions to establish an energy secretariat.
According to Article 20 Section 2 of the Constitution, “… Creation of an additional ministry or reduction of any ministry shall be approved by Parliament.” Therefore, the creation of the energy secretariat (by which a new ministry, the ministry for energy, would be created) must require the Parliament’s approval. So I’m concerned that the government seems convinced that they do not need the Parliament’s approval to establish the new secretariat. [Continue Reading...]
Last week, Kuensel reported that the prime minister had announced that:
… import of private light vehicles will be temporarily stopped until the Supreme Court comes out with a verdict on the government’s appeal.
My last entry, on interpreting the Constitution, made me wonder if the PM’s announcement to ban the import of private light vehicles is – you guessed it – constitutional or not.
Why? Because Article 7 Section 10 of the Constitution guarantees that:
A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to practice any lawful trade, profession or vocation.
In other words, as long as your business is lawful, you have the right – a fundamental right – to conduct that business. And how can you tell if your business is lawful? By referring to relevant laws. But if the government has given you a license to conduct that business, that business must be legal.
A ban on the import of private vehicles would mean that certain businesses, licensed to buy and sell vehicles, would not be able to do business. That should make us ask, are fundamental rights being violated?
Business Bhutan recently reported that the prime minister had expressed his frustrations over interpretations of the constitution that were undermining the government’s work. The PM was quoted as saying:
I feel very emotional because we are the democratically elected government with a huge majority which means people have placed their trust fully in us but every time we want to do something the book is being thrown at us.
Our PM is correct. 67% of the electorate voted for DPT, and gave them, the ruling party, 45 of the 47 seats in the National Assembly. Yes, the government was elected by a “huge majority.” And yes, that means the “people have placed their trust fully” in the government.
But the people’s trust in the government, while overwhelming, does not give them carte blanche – a blank cheque to do as they please. Instead, the people expect, and the Constitution requires, the government to function in accordance with the laws of the land.
In his first state of the Nation address, 18 months ago, the PM had announced that the Constitution should not be used as a lagdep, i.e., a manual or guidebook. This is how I had responded to the PM’s concerns:
Our Prime Minister expressed concerns that the Constitution is being used as a detailed manual. And that interpreting the Constitution in rigid and narrow terms undermines good governance and weakens the government. He also reported that we should not unnecessarily invoke and test the Constitution.
I disagree. I firmly believe that we should constantly refer to the Constitution. And that, even if we don’t understand any other law, we should study the Constitution thoroughly. After all, the Constitution is the mother of all laws in Bhutan.
If disagreements arise in the interpretation of the Constitution – and they will be many differences – they should be discussed amicably and with the understanding that all parties involved want nothing but what is best for our country and our people. And, naturally, if these disagreements cannot be resolved the option to take the matter to the courts is always there.
If we feel that the government’s actions are in line with the Constitution, we must support them, especially if the actions are good for the country and the people.
But if we feel that the government’s actions may not necessarily be good for the country and the people, we must raise our voices.
And if we feel that the government’s actions are unconstitutional, we must “throw the book” at them.
The National Assembly has endorsed the government’s proposal to increase the salaries of public servants. Here’s the good news:
Civil Servants will get a 20% raise over their pre-2009 salaries. Pre-2009 is used as a base as that was when salaries were last increased (by 35%), taking the total increase to 55%. Civil service salaries will now range from Nu 7,067 (for GSC II staff) to Nu 52,654 a month (for EX-1/ES-1 level).
Secretaries to Government will draw Nu 55,490 a month. And the Cabinet Secretary will get Nu 63,000. That makes the Cabinet Secretary Bhutan’s top civil servant.
The pay scale for holders of constitutional offices, including members of the Judiciary, have not changed as they were fixed recently.
Members of local government will also receive a 20% increase over their pre-2009 levels, taking the salary for gups to Nu 14,355. The salary for thrompons has been fixed at par with EX-2 level (Nu 44,175). In addition, thrompons will get a house rent allowance of 20%.
The salary for Members of Parliament has been increased from Nu 36,000 to Nu 55,490. The Deputy Chairperson (of the National Council) and the Deputy Speaker (of the National Assembly) will draw Nu 63,000.
All that is good news.
But there’s more good news: the prime minister, chief justice, speaker, chairperson, cabinet ministers, and opposition leader have not taken salary increases. Their salaries will remain unchanged at Nu 78,000 per month.
The proposal to increase salaries will be discussed by the National Council today. They should endorse it, in which case the increases will come into effect on 1st January 2011.
What? The prime minister wants to call secretaries vice-ministers?
Why? Who do we want to impress?
Shouldn’t we focus on streamlining the civil service instead? Shouldn’t we be working towards making the civil service small, compact and efficient?
Where did the prime minister get this idea from anyway? Where would vice ministers draw their legal basis from? And under what legal authority would they function?
What? The RCSC is in the dark? Really?
I am impressed with Lyonpo Dorji Wangdi’s confidence. When the labour minister called for a ban on drayangs, he guaranteed jobs for all the women who currently work in drayangs. And I’m quite sure that, if he had to, he could keep this promise.
But here’s something he should think about: the women working in drayangs already have jobs. So they don’t need his bold assurances. Unemployed youth, on the other hand, would welcome his guarantees. After all, they are the ones who are desperate for work.
So provide out-of-school youth with gainful employment. Then they themselves would choose not to work in drayangs. And I would be really impressed with Lyonpo Dorji Wangdi.
Photo credit: Kuensel
During Question Hour yesterday, I asked the finance minister two straightforward questions:
“What action has the Royal Government taken to investigate alleged violations by Bhutan’s lottery agent in India?”
“What action has the Royal Government taken to investigate alleged violations in the manner the lottery agent was appointed and reappointed?”
The finance minister’s reply was a long-winded narrative about the history of Bhutan lottery. And an elaborate recount of how the government selected their lottery agent, and how, later, reduced that agent’s contractual obligations.
But the finance minister did not answer the question: has the government investigated the alleged violations? That would mean that they haven’t. If so, I am surprised.
I’m surprised because the scale of the allegations is huge, even by Indian standards. By now, the government should have summoned their lottery agent and demanded explanations. And they should have conducted a thorough audit of the government’s lottery offices, at home and in India.
I’m also surprised because, left unchecked, the allegations can seriously undermine the government’s policy of “zero tolerance to corruption.”
It’s time to take the matter up with the Anti-Corruption Commission.