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Sunday 21 January 2018

Disruptive Duke

The call by president of the Public Services Association (PSA) Watson Duke for public servants to “rest and reflect” for two days is frivolous, irresponsible and amounts to an abuse of power. It can only harm the strength of the labour movement in the long run.

The call, by most accounts, was not heeded by workers yesterday. Nor should it be heeded today. Workers have too much at stake. They should be praised for exercising sensible restraint thus far in ignoring Watson’s call.

No one is questioning the existence of Section 24 of the Civil Service Act which enables consultation with the association on matters relating to civil (public) servants. However, the scope of that consultation is clearly laid out in Section 14 of the Act. It relates to remuneration, regulations, classification of officers and grievances, and “any other matters concerning civil servants.”

As things stand, the Government’s proposal to establish a Revenue Authority is a plan. While much preparation is clearly occurring, the relevant legislation is yet to be tabled in Parliament, debated, passed, assented and proclaimed. Duke is premature to invoke his powers in a vacuum without any recourse to facts. Let us see what the TTRA actually is and whether it will, in fact, have any effect on public servants.

Not only is Duke premature, but all the indications thus far suggest he is largely off the mark. The Ministry of Finance has strongly denied any suggestion that jobs will be lost or that workers will be employed on terms and conditions any less favourable than they currently enjoy.

But even assuming Duke has some basis now to seek a meeting with Finance Minister Colm Imbert, the powers of his office and his association should in no way trump the will of the democratically-elected Parliament and Government. It is the prerogative of the Government to seek to enact taxation reform in line with its policies and vision. Any rights which Duke and workers have must be understood in the context of the overall need for proper tax administration in our economy as well as the moral obligation public servants have to the country for which they daily work.

No workers should relish the idea of disruption to the economy, which is the only thing Duke stands to achieve with his reckless call. The country is already suffering from high levels of complaints over worker productivity, as well as a softened revenue profile. Adding a random, unnecessary protest in the mix in the busy November month is treasonous.

Is Duke more concerned with his own fate as president of the PSA? Is this latest move simply an appeal to the gallery for support? Is he also seeking to gain points in the long run with the Tobago electorate? Absent any clear basis on which to invoke Section 24, his actions potentially amount to the use of public office for private political gain. The low level of support shown yesterday may be a sign that his campaign is not as promising as he would like ahead of November 27.

As for Duke’s claim that next Monday’s meeting between himself and Imbert was inevitable, it is clear the PSA leader is overestimating the scope of his PSA office. While Section 24 clearly states the minister will recognise the association, it nowhere states that the minister must consult on every single action he takes as a Cabinet minister regarding public servants.

What is more, Section 24 is subject to the Constitution which empowers the Executive to do that which it is elected to do: run the country. Hence, Parliament, in its wisdom, prefaces Section 24 by stating the section is “subject to any other written law to the contrary.” Duke’s reading of the section is erroneous and goes contrary to the spirit of the very Constitution that has put him in office in the first place. His shambolic campaign is far from an act of muscle-flexing. It erodes confidence in the PSA and weakens the bargaining power of its future leaders.


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