Entitlement urgency

Most of you sided with the government’s proposal to force early elections that I wrote about in Dissolving the government. Thank you for your comments. (For the record, PDP would benefit from early elections too. Unlike the three new parties, we already have a presence in all 20 dzongkhags. And that means that early elections would almost assure us of getting past the primary round.)

By law, the government can recommend the premature dissolution of the National Assembly. So I have no problem with the legality of the government’s proposal. It’s the principle that concerns me. If the government’s proposal to dissolve the National Assembly before the completion of its term is motivated by the national good, I’m all for it. If, on the other hand, the government is motivated by narrow political interests, I’m concerned.

I happen to believe that it’s the latter. I believe that the government is forcing early elections to prevent the new parties from establishing themselves and taking away votes from the ruling party. I believe that the government wants to sweep the elections with little or no opposition. I believe that the government is intent on clinging on to power.

But let’s move on.

In his inaugural address, the speaker also announced that the Parliamentary Entitlement Act would be introduced for amendment during this session.

Now here, we run into trouble, both by law and by principle.

Section 30 of the Parliamentary Entitlement Act states that, “A member of Parliament upon retirement on completion of his term of five years shall be entitled to such amount of gratuity as may be provided for under this Act.”  And according to Section 31, “… No gratuity shall be payable if a member retires before the completion of his term or if his services are terminated.”

If the National Assembly is dissolved before the completion of its term, we, MPs, will not have completed our term of five years, and, as such, will not be entitled to collect gratuity. Hence, the urgency to revise the Parliamentary Entitlement Act.

Amending the Parliamentary Entitlement Act just to benefit ourselves is questionable, on principle. But it is also questionable, again on principle, because the the National Assembly  rejected the Parliamentary Entitlement (Amendment) Bill which was passed by the National Council less than a year ago, in the last session of the Parliament.

And that’s where amending the Parliamentary Entitlement Act in this session could run into trouble with the law.

According to Section 193 of the National Assembly Act, “When a Bill has been passed or has been rejected during a session in any year, no Bill of the same substance may be introduced in the Assembly in that year except by leave of the Assembly.” The Parliamentary Entitlement (Amendment) Act was rejected in the 9th Session, so we should not be allowed to discuss it in the 10th Session. Unless, that is, the Assembly considers this a serious enough matter to merit discussion even though a year has not passed since rejecting the Bill.

But even if the National Assembly goes ahead and amends the Parliamentary Entitlement Act in this session, the amended bill can only be considered by the National Council in the next session of the Parliament. That won’t be possible, as this session is the last session of this Parliament.

If any amendment to the Parliamentary Entitlement Act is to be passed in this session itself, the amendment bill must be introduced as an “urgent bill”. But for that, the question we will need to ask ourselves is this: does the entitlement of members of Parliament amount to a national urgency?

 

Think about Lhab Tshering

Lhab Tshering has been in detention since 31st January. On that fateful day, he was caught with 64 packets of chewing tobacco (Baba khaini) at the Chunzom checkpoint. He didn’t have a receipt to prove that he possessed the khaini legally. So he was charged for smuggling tobacco under the Tobacco Control Act.

Yesterday, the Thimphu District Court, found Lhab Tshering guilty of smuggling tobacco, and sentenced him to jail for three years.

Lhab Tshering, a driver, had purchased the khaini on 26th January, while repairing his vehicle, a trailer, in Jaigaon, India. He had paid Nu 200 for the 64 packets of khaini, each of which contains 10 grams of tobacco.

In court, he argued that the tobacco was for personal consumption. And he pleaded that he was not aware of the tobacco ban, which had, in fact, been in effect for barely a month.

The Office of the Attorney General, his prosecutors, maintained that ignorance of the law is not a justifiable defense. They are right. But they went on to elaborate that the Tobacco Control Act was:

… enacted by the Parliament which is represented by the elected members of all the people in Bhutan. This is enough to state that he is part of law making process because he is also a voter who elected the member from his constituency and thus he is also represented in the parliament in the enactment of the Act.

Incredible! The OAG, in its convoluted way, seems to blame Lhab Tshering for passing the law that got him into trouble.

Okay, Lhab Tshering may have voted. (And if he did, he most probably voted for the DPT.) But he can’t be held responsible for the laws that his representatives make. That responsibility – especially for crafting laws that harass people instead of benefiting them – lies solely and squarely with his representatives in the Parliament.

Anyway, Lhab Tshering has been sent to jail. And he doesn’t know what to do. In fact, there’s almost nothing he can do.

But the question is: what can we do about it?

At the very least, we can pause and think about Lhab Tshering.

Think about Lhab Tshering, a fellow citizen. He’s being sent to jail for three whole years for possessing a mere 64 packets of khaini worth all of Nu 200.

Think about Lhab Tshering, the sole bread earner in his family. He earned Nu 7,000 a month as a driver. But since his detention, five months ago, he hasn’t received a salary. And he won’t be able to do so for the next three years.

Think about Lhab Tshering, the young husband and father. His wife is 20 years old. And his son is just two. They’ve had to leave their home in Khuruthang, and are now living with Aum Choden, Lhab Tshering’s distant relative, in Thimphu. Yangchen Lham, Lhab Tshering’s wife, has no money, so she and her son are completely dependent on Aum Choden.

Think about Lhab Tshering, Aum Passam’s only “capable” child. She lives in a bamboo shack in Patale, Tsirang, with two of her children, both teenagers. She does not own any land, and, until recently, was supported by her son, Lhab Tshering.

Think about Lhab Tshering, Tshering Lhamu’s and Phub Dorji’s older brother. Tshering is in Class 3, and Phub is in Class 5. They go to school in Khuruthang and, until recently, they lived with their brother, Phub Tshering. While undergoing trail, Phub Tshering has had to request his Aunty, Wangchuk Dema, a gardener at Ugyen Academy, to take care of Tshering Lhamu and Phub Dorji.

Think about Lhab Tshering, a young man, criminalized by the Tobacco Control Act, and ask yourself if there’s justice in that law.

Think about Lhab Tshering, your fellow citizen, and demand that his representatives in Parliament – and your own representatives – correct this injustice.

Taking people for a ride

Bhutan Today has quoted MP Ugyen Wangdi, the National Assembly’s legislative committee chairman, of accusing the opposition leader of trying to “hoodwink the people of Bhutan” and taking “the people of Bhutan for a ride”. He was referring to my continuing protests over the government’s unlawful tax increases.

Obviously, Dasho Ugyen is entitled to his views. And, yes, I’ll defend his right to express them. But I’m surprised at his views. After all, he’s the very MP who tabled the motion in Parliament to amend the provisions of the Sales Tax, Customs and Excise Act 2000 that he considered to be inconsistent with the Constitution.

Here’s his Notice of Motion:

Amendment of the Sales Tax, Customs and Excise Act of the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2000.

As per Part I, Chapter 3, Section 4.2 of the Sales Tax, Customs and Excise Act of the Kingdom which was passed by the then National Assembly of Bhutan, the Royal Government is given the power to approve the fixation of the rates of Sales Tax and any revision thereof, and the range of commodities and services under the Sales Tax Schedule. On the other hand, Article 14, (1) of the Constitution states that taxes, fees and other forms of levies shall not be imposed or altered except by law. As such, any change in sales tax and customs duty needs to be done in concurrence with the Parliament.

In accordance with Article 1(10) of the Constitution, the undersigned would like to propose to the House that the relevant agency shall be directed to make necessary amendments to the Sales Tax, Customs an Excise Act of the Kingdom of Bhutan, 2000 and submit it to the National Assembly for amendment.

In his motion, Dasho Ugyen refers to Article 14, Section 1 of the Constitution and concludes that, “As such, any change in sales tax and customs duty needs to be done in concurrence with the Parliament.” And that’s exactly what I’ve been saying: only Parliament can raise taxes, not the government.

Dasho Ugyen also refers to Article 1, Section 10: “All laws in force in the territory of Bhutan at the time of adopting this Constitution shall continue until altered, repealed or amended by Parliament. However, the provisions of any law, whether made before or after the coming into force of this Constitution, which are inconsistent with this Constitution, shall be null and void.” Again, exactly what I’ve been saying: the provisions of the Sales Tax, Customs and Excise Act 2000 that gave the government the authority to raise taxes are now “null and void”.

So I really don’t understand why Dasho Ugyen is so upset that I’m continuing to challenge the tax increases imposed by the government.

Perhaps it’s because I did not, as he put it, raise my voice at all on this issue in the House when he tabled the motion. He’s correct: I did not take the floor then. But I did not speak for a very simple reason: I supported the motion. In fact, every member of the National Assembly supported the motion!

Pride or disgrace?

How has it fared?

The Parliament met in a joint sitting yesterday to conclude its fifth session. And just like that, the first Parliament of Bhutan has already completed half of its 10 regular sessions.

So I’ve been thinking about the past five sessions, and researching how we, your members of parliament, have bought you pride or disgrace during the course of our work. I may write about it, but sometime later.

In the meantime, I invite you to share your thoughts on how we have fared so far. Which were our best moments? Which were our worst? And which made you laugh?

I’ve featured the Parliament building in the banner to remind you to give us, parliamentarians, your insights.

Excavating dirt

Dirty business

Two weeks ago, I accidentally telephoned Passang Dorji, the chief reporter at The Journalist. I’d meant to call someone else. But somehow, I dialed Passang’s number instead. So we made use of the unforeseen opportunity to catch up.

I asked how he was doing. And how their new company, The Journalist, was faring. He replied that the times were difficult; and that they weren’t making enough money; but that, with support from friends and relatives, they were pulling through.

Passang also confided in me. He told me that they were working on a scoop – a story about members of parliament and ministers buying excavators; and about them leasing the equipment to the Punatshangchu Hydropower Authority.

He asked me for my opinion. I told him that our laws forbid members of parliament from engaging in commercial activities. And I told him that, as far as I knew, no law prevented family members, including spouses, of parliamentarians from doing business. But I encouraged him to work on his “scoop”, especially to investigate for political corruption and conflicts of interest in the Punatshangchu case.

Then I told him that it might interest him to know that my wife also owns two excavators; that both of them were bought on loan; that one of them was working for a Bhutanese contractor involved in the Punatshangchu project; and that the other was lying idle.

I suggested that he should talk to my wife. I advised him that he might want to ask to see the business income tax returns that she would soon have to file.  And I informed him that my wife and daughter were accompanying me to my constituency in a few days.

Passang Dorji didn’t contact me. Nor did he contact my wife. And this is what The Journalist had written:

The opposition leader, Tshering Tobgay, also confessed to having two excavators in this wife’s name and that one was already deployed at the PHPA site. He could not be contacted for further details. He was in Haa and was unreachable through cell phone.

Yes, the excavators are in my wife’s name. And I cannot deny that they belong to our family. But to insinuate that I had tried to avoid detection; that I was made to confess; that my wife was just a front; and that I was actually doing the work is irresponsible.

So I telephoned Passang Dorji again. He confirmed that he didn’t know about my wife’s excavators before I volunteered that information. He claimed that he didn’t write the article. And he admitted that the part about the opposition leader could be misleading.

I’m not making excuses. I’m just setting the record straight.

My wife’s company is called GT Hiring. She owns two excavators, each worth about 47 lakhs, that she bought in September 209.  She owes the Bhutan National Bank about 90 lakhs. One machine works for Ringdol Construction, a local contractor. And the other is idle.

I encourage The Journalist to meet my wife. She will convince them that GT Hiring is her business; that she’s not fronting; and that her husband is forbidden from interfering in her company’s matters. But that said, it does not mean that I bear no accountability. I will accept full responsibility for my wife’s business, if what she does is illegal. Or if it interferes, in anyway, with my work as a parliamentarian and the opposition leader.

The Journalist promised to investigate the excavator stories in detail. I encourage them to do so. We must not allow MPs to use their influence to get into business. We must take conflicts of interest seriously. And we must not allow political corruption to breed.

Rewarding work

Pay masters

Pay masters

Last December, I suggested that we should greet the Pay Commission’s recommendation to give politicians a big raise with surprise and suspicion.

Less than three weeks later, we were given the Government’s pay revision report. The Government had revised the Pay Commission’s report substantially. In fact, the Government modified the Commission’s report beyond recognition. But, I was happy. And, I had registered my satisfaction at the Government’s decision to stick with more reasonable pay increases to politicians.

This is what I had written:

For now, I am happy – happy and proud – that our government has decided against hefty pay increases for politicians. Good job.

I take back my words.

What was a “good job” then, has now, barely 10 months later, been totally undone. Yesterday, the National Assembly endorsed a pay increase for members of parliament.

Parliament does not have the powers to consider or grant pay increases unilaterally. Instead, according to the Constitution, it’s the Pay Commission’s job to recommend increases in the salaries and allowances of public servants. And that includes us, politicians.

But several ministers argued that last year’s Pay Commission had indeed recommended salary increases, and that yesterday’s discussions were based on those recommendations. Rubbish. The Government had already overhauled the Pay Commission’s report. And, the Parliament had discussed and approved the Government’s pay increase proposal. The Pay Commission’s original report was never debated in Parliament.

If it’s time to revise the salaries of politicians, go for it. But go by the book – the Constitution.

And, it goes without saying, that if it’s time to revise the salaries of politicians, it must also be time to revise the salaries of all public servants.

Photo credit: BBS

CDG and future elections

Free and fair?

Free and fair?

I called on our Chief Election Commissioner yesterday. I called on him to report that the CDG, if implemented as proposed, will compromise the ECB’s ability to conduct future elections to the National Assembly in a free and fair manner. The Constitution (Article 24.1) and the Election Act (Chapter 3.34) specifically require the Election Commission of Bhutan to conduct elections “in a free and fair manner.”

Why would CDG hinder free and fair elections? Through CDG, our government places Nu 10 million at the disposal of the members of the National Assembly. How that money is used in their respective constituencies is finally up to MP from that constituency. The MP concerned has the authority to suggest project ideas, to consider all project proposals, to approve projects, and to divert funds from projects already approved that the MP may find unsatisfactory.

These are sweeping executive powers for MPs, members of a legislature that is not permitted to encroach on the executive’s powers. And, given the opportunity, MPs will use these State resources to maximize political gain. And the ECB’s ability to conduct future National Assembly elections “in a free and fair manner” would be seriously compromised.

I also reported to the Chief Election Commissioner that the CDG may constitute Office of Profit since MPs would have “powers of disbursement of State funds…” as described in the Election Act {Chapter 9.164(c)}. This particular Office of Profit, according to the Election Act, is not permitted, and may provide sufficient grounds to disqualify sitting members of parliament {Chaper 9.167(b)}

I’m hopeful that the ECB looks into this matter immediately, before some of us, eager MPs, get ourselves in trouble.

Illegal grants

Our poll says that the CDG is illegal. 52% of the participants think that the CDG is unconstitutional. And 18% feel that it is very bad; that it will breed corruption. 15% are suspicious that the CDG will be used to win the next elections. And only 15% feel that the CDG is a good idea; that the grant will allow our MPs to fulfill their promises.

33 people participated in the poll.

The result is obvious. An overwhelming majority of us feel that the CDG is not a good idea. And most of us are convinced that it is illegal, that it is unconstitutional.

So, if the CDG is not good for Bhutan. And it is illegal. What should we do? That’s the purpose of our next poll.

Make your presence felt. And your opinions count. Take the poll.

Seedy grant

Our newspapers reported that the cabinet has approved the constituency development grant last week (read Bhutan Observer). I join the NC Chairman in expressing complete shock at the cabinet’s decision. Here are a few reasons, most of which I’ve shared with BBS, why we should be seriously concerned if the CDG has really been approved:

1. It is unconstitutional. Our Constitution declares that “there shall be separation of the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary and no encroachment of each other’s powers is permissible.” Allowing MPs to implement the CDG amounts to the legislature encroaching on the executive.

2. It undermines local governments. Our Constitution declares that “power and authority shall be decentralized and devolved to elected Local Governments…” By granting Nu 2 million per year per constituency as CDG, MPs retain a considerable amount of direct control over development funds. This will seriously undermine the “power and authority” of the Gewog Tshogdes.

3. It undermines the National Council. During the second session, the NC resolved that the CDG is unconstitutional and submitted the matter to His Majesty the King. In approving the CDG, the government may have totally disregarded the NC’s resolution.

4. Rules have not been approved. During the first session of the parliament, the NC and NA, in the joint sitting, resolved that they would continue deliberating the CDG in the next session, and instructed the government to present draft rules on the CDG at that time. The CDG rules were not presented or discussed during the second session of the parliament.

5. It is not fair. If members of the National Assembly require a constituency development grant, what about members of the National Council? They too have constituencies. They too made promises. And what about gups? And mangmis? And tshopas? All of them also have constituencies and also have promises to fulfill.

6. It will breed corruption. The CDG looks a lot like slush funds – the money is not earmarked for any specific purpose, and it will be used to gain political mileage.

7. It is inefficient. If money is available (and it must be, hence CDG), use it to fund development work as part of the 10th Five Year Plan. The ruling party’s promises, and that of its MPs, should and must be fully covered in the Plan. Extra money, if any, should be placed at the disposal of local governments. After all, they will have a much more intimate knowledge of the problems and the opportunities in their gewogs.

8. Learn. Several countries that have similar schemes – India, for example – are trying to abolish them. But they can’t. Why? Politicians, who are the ones who stand to gain the most from such schemes, will not agree to do away with them. Let’s learn from the mistakes of others.