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May 25

The Explainer: Speaker

That was news coverage from the State Opening of Parliament in 2008, with announcers already speculating about the political future of the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Within months, that Speaker was ousted from his position, the first to be directly challenged by the Commons in three centuries. For Filipinos who wonder what role public opinion over allegations of corruptions plays in the West, the ongoing political revolution in the UK is worth exploring.

 

Tonight, how British public opinion toppled a Speaker and many more, from their perches in power.

 

I.

 

Yesterday the editorial of the Philippine Daily Inquirer focused on the rather remarkable goings-on in the United Kingdom, where, for the first time in 300 years the Speaker of the House of Commons ended up confronted in such a manner.

Things came to a fascinating head during a stormy parliamentary session, in which the embattled Speaker tried to make an Arroyo-style “I am.. Sorry” speech. Let’s watch:

But this  only poured gasoline on an already-raging fire.

Accounts of the tumultuous parliamentary session particularly struck me because of the elephantine institutional memory of everyone concerned.

Aside from most commentators pointing out it’s been three centuries (not since 1695 to be exact!) since a Speaker of the House of Commons has been prematurely removed from office, 

Sir Patrick Cormack, in responding to the Speaker’s apology-flop, brought up the Norway Debate (in which Neville Chamberlain lost the confidence of the Commons in 1940).

Bloggers picked up on the reference as well,

From a Vauxhall Velox put it best:

You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

The words of Leo Amery in the Norway Debate have never had such resonance and appropriateness as they perhaps have had today in the House of Commons. Sir Patrick Cormack referenced the great debate of 1940 during what can only be described as the shambolic statement by Mr Speaker Martin today.

 

And Leo Amery, a partisan of Churchill, in turn used the famous lines of Oliver Cromwell when he dismissed the Long Parliament on April 20, 1653, perhaps one of the most vitriolic speeches ever made by a politician against his peers:

It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonored by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money. Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter’d your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth? Ye sordid prostitutes have you not defil’d this sacred place, and turn’d the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves, by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d, are yourselves gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors. In the name of God, go!

 

Although SnarkMarket points to research suggesting the speech may have entered legend but without a basis in historical fact!

Blogger To labour is to struggle pointed out how the Speaker’s defenders tried to turn the tables, at first, on their critics, are waging war on a nationalistic) class front since Martin is Scottish and from the working class.

But the public mood was definitely not only sour, but indignant on a nationwide scale.

A commentary in The National Newspaper outlines the whole issue, including some of the more lurid revelations.

The cause of the MPs’ decline is the publication of their expenses, leaked to a newspaper. It is the detail that has caught the public imagination, rather than any huge sums of money…

More seriously, several top politicians, including cabinet members, have manipulated the rules so that they can avoid paying the taxes that they legislate for other people to pay. Others have claimed for reimbursement of the interest on non-existent mortgages, which looks like fraud and is being investigated by the police.

The scandal might have been contained but for the fact that a succession of MPs have explained their conduct by saying it was “within the rules”. But the MPs themselves set these rules and fought hard to keep them secret from outside scrutiny. Many still cannot see that it was their responsibility to change a patently unreasonable and immoral system, not to go along with it.

 

The New York Times editorial today also says the issue is one of official salaries not being in keeping with what the jobs may really require:

Members do have a legitimate compliant that they are paid too little: less than $100,000 a year, compared with about $170,000 for a member of the United States Congress. Britain’s taxpayers want changes. They want to make Parliament’s doings more open, which is a good thing. They also want to cut out these fat and far too easily abused expense accounts. That’s good too. But they will also have to find a way to pay their representatives a better wage.

The Daily Telegraph has been at the forefront of the issue..

With revelations on where MP’s went shopping…

The weird things for which they obtained refunds and allowances from the government…

Based on this information, citizens have pointed out some of the jucier bits. Let’s watch.

Now if at first this scandal was at about whether the Speaker would survive;

And whether he would merely be the scapegoat for Parliament’s exposed corruption. But British observers are viewing this as the greatest political earthquake in a generation.

When we return, we’ll look at our own domestic allowances controversies, and what the British may teach us as a means to curb official excesses.

 

II.

 

That was the British Historian David Starkey giving us the real score on how Cromwell shut down the House of Commons, in the only case in their history, of a non-royal dictatorship.

The unfolding scandal in the United Kingdom, where members of parliament are facing public outrage over their allowances and tax exemptions, reminds me of one of my favorite political autobiographies:

Jose E. Romero’s Not So Long Ago: A Chronicle Of My Life, Times, & Contemporaries published in 1977 by Alemar-Phoenix. To my mind, it’s about as honest as any politician’s account of his life can be expected to be.

His memoirs helps explain how government officials went from living within their means to trying to supplement salaries that failed to keep up with inflation or the requirements of their jobs.

Romero brings up how all sorts of allowances have to be created which supplements the take home pay, but does not address the need to offer salaries commensurate with what’s expected of an official.

Just to update a detail I first mentioned in my column in 2005: if, today, the President of the Philippines earns about 640,000 pesos a year, consider the equivalent, in today’s money, of the President’s 30,000 peso annual salary when the position was established in 1935. According to Henry Ma of the Asian Development Bank, in 2008 pesos, the presidential salary then would be 10 million pesos per annum today.

Since salaries in keeping with their responsibilities are politically-dangerous, politicians keep their salaries low by means of increasing their own allowances. Romero’s memoirs points out the precise point when congressmen decided they have to find ways to boost their salaries. In his book, he wrote of the situation the last Congress of the Commonwealth faced, in 1945:

“The members of Congress,” he recalled, “like most other citizens, had lost most of what they had. .. To compound the problems of the members of Congress and everybody else, inflation was rampant. Even sugar was lacking and was selling at five times the usual price.”

He continued, “We had to commute between the House of Representatives and the houses where we were living in cargo trucks hastily converted for the use of passengers and we had to pay a very high fare. In order to alleviate the situation of the members of Congress who were getting no more than the six hundred pesos per month provided for in the Constitution, President Osmena, in the use of his emergency powers, authorized the Auditor-General’s Office to make advances to the members of Congress to enable them to meet the cost of living in Manila during the sessions. This was the principal reason afterward for the approval of the much criticized Back Pay Law.”

An accounting problem then arose: “At the end of the sessions, the Auditor-General was pressing for payment of the advances made under the authority given by President Osmena. Their term of office was expiring. The solution was found in the payment of Back Pay to the members of Congress for salaries due them during the war. This move was bitterly criticized by the public, and the question became an issue in the succeeding elections and caused the defeat of many members of Congress in their bid for reelection.”

But, Romero argued, “Taking an objective view of the situation, however, this form of relief for the lawmakers was almost a necessity. The amount involved was only a little, over P20,000 for every member of Congress, and the payment made was only once. Of this amount each legislator had already received some P8,000 in advances. It was simply impossible for the lawmakers to live in Manila at six hundred pesos a month with the inflation then rampant. Had the lawmakers at that time less respect for the Constitution, and had they then discovered the magic formula of the allowances, they could have solved their problem by making payments to themselves, not in the relatively small amount of P20,000 but ten times as much, as succeeding legislators were to get -and not only once, but every year.”

And so, “Many of the members of Congress were defeated in the election that followed on this issue of back pay, but later members of Congress were to be reelected again and again after paying themselves much more in the form of allowances than the legislators of 1945 paid themselves in the form of back pay. This may mean either that our electorate have already become cynical and callous or that the greater fund available for election expenses is more effective to win votes than as an issue against the beneficiaries of these objectionable payments.

Had the lawmakers in 1945 voted themselves two hundred thousand pesos yearly instead of twenty thousand pesos once, perhaps not so many of them would have been defeated. But then the temper of the people at the time was not propitious for such disregard of the proprieties, and there might have been violent demonstrations. Cynicism crept in slowly but steadily and, later, the voters ceased to mind anymore what in 1945 not only would have been fatal issues but might also have triggered violent reactions.”

 

So the moral of the tale is things haven’t always been the way they are, but that things can change pretty swiftly and then gain their own momentum. Which is precisely what’s happening in the UK .

Official allowances have remained controversial, domestically, and economic downturns often lead politicians to trim their salaries as a sop to public opinion, while finding other ways to maintain their. For example, Magnolia Antonino ended up in the Senate because her husband based his entire senatorial campaign on opposing congressional allowances. When he died in a plane crash on the eve of the elections, the country elected his wife as a posthumous vindication of his cause.

 

This whole thing is extremely relevant in light of the ongoing efforts to muster public support for a Freedom of Information Act.

As this article (Selangor to enact Freedom of Info law ) shows, increasing demands for public access to official records may be part of the Zeitgeist.

Public indignation was sparked by journalists using the UK’s Freedom of Information Act of 2000 to secure official information damaging to officialdom. And that will be our topic next week.

 

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