After being ordered out of parliament last week and the sanctions imposed on the Mouvement Patriotique’s Alan Ganoo this week, Weekly speaks to Labour Party MP Arvin Boolell about his feelings on the functioning of the National Assembly. He also explains his stance towards India and the two countries’ relationship, which the prime minister qualifies as “India-bashing” and his concerns about the negative impression of our financial sector internationally.
The speaker of the National Assembly was so angry at you last week that she ordered you out. How does a well-behaved boy turn into a rebel so suddenly?
To err is human except that in that particular and regrettable incident, I committed no sin and I wanted the speaker to understand that I have rights and she has an obligation to be fiercely independent. Parliament is the temple of democracy. I need to have my say even if the speaker wants to have her way. In the words of Edmund Burke to the electors of Bristol on 3 November 1774, government and legislation are a matter of reason and judgment and not inclination. The judgment of the chair and the parliamentarian should not be clouded. In my case, there was clarity of thought and the parliamentary question which I put was of national interest.
Be that as it may, there was no time to reply to it. Why didn’t you accept that?
Because I felt that I was denied a legitimate right because the speaker, as chairperson of the Parliamentary Gender Caucus, could have exercised her prerogatives to make sure that fairness and impartiality are a mirror image of perception and reality.
By challenging the speaker, who cannot control the replies given in parliament, didn’t you bring the House into disrepute?
The public knows who is trying to bring the House into disrepute. The electorate was waiting for a reply to my question in the interest of the country. It is true that the Chair has no control over replies of ministers but, in the spirit of parliamentary democracy, irrespective of whether it is the prime minister or backbencher, a culture of restraint is inevitable. Any dignified speaker would exercise his or her prerogative in an impartial manner. The opposition should be heard.
Was the speaker also partial in Mouvement Patriotique’s Alan Ganoo’s case?
The problem between the speaker and Alan Ganoo is a war of roses and thorns. She has always been overshadowed by him. In constituency No 14 and in 2005 when they stood together under the Mouvement Militant Mauricien- Mouvement Socialiste Militant (MMM- MSM) alliance, she must have felt undermined as she did not go to the polls. Against this background, there is vindictiveness and yesterday (Tuesday – Ed) throughout the parliamentary session, he had his hand up and she failed to catch his eye. It was deliberate. She acted impartially. Ganoo was totally ignored. He rose on a point of order and stated with respect that, as an elected member, he is the voice of the people and had to be heard. The speaker ordered him to sit down and went as far as saying that he was out of order and was ignorant of the Standing Orders. That remark was uncalled for because Ganoo was right and he has a broad knowledge of the length and breadth of the Standing Orders. He maintained his stand – that is his right to put question and be treated fairly. Unfortunately, the speaker came with the usual remark that the Chair so decides and it cannot be challenged. She asked Ganoo to apologise. There was no reason to do so because he had not been disrespectful or disruptive. And then she uttered her usual threat and the motion was moved by the acting leader of the House and Ganoo has been suspended for three sittings. The opposition took a firm stand to support Ganoo. We all remained seated when the speaker walked in and we held a press conference to denounce his suspension.
Except the MMM. Does that not show a lack of Solidarity and a disjointed opposition?
Not at all. We stood together to condemn the attitude of the speaker. Do you know of anybody who was more vocal than Paul Bérenger and Rajesh Bhagwan? Had there been an attempt to forcibly remove Ganoo, they all would have walked out. Parliament was suspended then it resumed followed by a motion to name Ganoo shortly after we broke for lunch. Since there were important questions being put by opposition on interference in police force and disappearance of drug exhibits, and controversy on the allocation of tender to acquire a combined Cycle Gas Turbine amongst others, they were right to stay. Opposition members have always stood by each other in times of need. The stand is unequivocal and we speak with one voice in our appeal to the speaker to be fiercely impartial irrespective of whether or not we are together at a press conference.
You have criticised the relationship we have with India so many times that the prime minister has accused you of India-bashing. How do you react to that?
I have made statements of fact and put legitimate questions. India is the most populous democracy and values its Freedom of Information Act. What is wrong if as a full-fledged citizen of my country, I ask that India and Mauritius fully disclose the findings of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) on maritime and security matters? I have a legitimate right to know if India will set up a “place” or a base on Agalega. In my intervention on the budget, I was right to point out that India is the legitimate security provider of the Indian Ocean and Mauritius should acknowledge this legitimacy. Unlike our friends in government, I believe that the sovereignty of my country is a legitimate right.
Didn’t your government also benefit from grants and loans from India?
We did! But our government was dignified. We addressed sectorial reforms to reignite the economy during the food, fuel, feed, financial crises of 2008-010. We did not trade off any sector for a one-off grant nor did we set up special purpose vehicles to bypass public procurement procedures and make an abuse of concessionary loans and grants obtained from India or other friendly countries. These loans are taxpayers’ money and the Indian parliament has the right to know if the money is being judiciously used.
As far as we are concerned, we are the receivers of that money. Where is the problem?
The days of a free lunch are over! When we no longer have the capacity to repay, the loan is converted into equity and repossession is inevitable. I hope the Sri Lankan Hambantota Syndrome would not have a contagion effect. I am still waiting for a written reply from the prime minister as to whether the construction of a fisheries port at Bain des Dames will be financed through concessionary loans from China. The Indians are eagerly waiting for the information to be circulated.
How do you exactly see our relationship with India? As Big Brother never doing anything to harm Little Brother?
A relationship is worthy when there is parity of esteem. In regional or multilateral forums, each country has one vote. Between India and Mauritius, there is a great human bondage nurtured on mutual respect and support. The African Union, India and many likeminded countries are supportive of the case we lodged before the International Court of Justice in our quest for a political advisory opinion on our territorial integrity. There is no trade in respect of the sacrosanctity of our sovereignty. Respect cannot be thrust; it has to be earned. Therefore, we have to lessen our dependency. We have to reinvent our mixed policies and come together as a nation to escape the middle-income trap. We have to take up the rung of the ladder on economic, social and cultural fronts.
What does the end of the double taxation avoidance agreement (DTAA) represent in this relationship?
There is only one factor that remains constant in life – change. When one negotiates from a position of weakness, the consequences can be far reaching. The regime walked straight into the trap baited for us by the Indians and ended up in a losing situation. The grandfathering of business before April 2017 was thrown to us more out of pity than negotiating skills which were badly lacking. It was the intervention of a skilled Indian diplomat who reminded PM Narendra Modi of the commitment he gave when he addressed our National Assembly. The Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement (CECPA) is a loose end for Mauritius and a bundle of joy for India. Today, the commissioner of income tax in India has unfettered powers under the General Anti-Avoidance Rule (GAAR) if he so desires to set aside investment routed through the low tax Mauritian jurisdiction on mere hearsay.
The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has enlisted the services of a Consortium of International Banks to assess the credibility of low tax jurisdictions and we are listed as a High-Risk Jurisdiction. What are the implications of that?
Our global business sector is under stress and business is shifting to Seychelles and Singapore. Make no mistake: despite intense lobbying of the Indian government, the Indian civil servants can always say that there is very little that could be done politically because the report is the work of an Independent Consortium of International Banks. There is a heavy price to pay when controversial clients are allowed to use our jurisdiction to conduct business. The impact upon our credit rating, current account deficit and banking transactions as a whole would be impacted.
We have also received a bad report card from the Eastern and Southern Africa Anti-Money Laundering Group (ESAAMLG). Well-deserved or unfair?
As far as the ESAAMLG is concerned, it’s like the Commonwealth moving a resolution to condemn the UK. Mauritius, with the support of the Financial Action Task Force (on Money Laundering) (FATF), was a strong proponent of the setting up of the regional organisation. Today, we are taking our cue from ESAALG! The government has a lot to answer for. A letter from the minister of financial services and good governance won’t do. Government has to use its diplomatic skills to convince the group that it has to dispatch a team to Mauritius to take stock of the provisions of the finance bill and all corrective measures being taken by Mauritius to comply with the European Union’s scoreboard criteria. We don’t have to convince the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and others that, like the US, we have anonymous shell companies dubbed the getaway cars of financial crime.
Before you re-entered parliament, you were very concerned about the opacity surrounding Agalega. We no longer hear your protests. Why?
Do you know of any political member, irrespective of allegiance, who has dared to put these legitimate questions? The sovereignty of our country is sacrosanct and one of our pillars of our democracy is our secularism. India is no different and I expect India, in the name of their Freedom of Information Act, to disclose the relevant information. If Seychelles has dared to debate the issue of security, our Mauritian government, if it does command respect, has an obligation to speak up and not put up with everything. India of course remains a trusted friend in the regional fight against human trafficking, piracy and terrorism.
How is the health of the Labour Party these days, Doctor?
Doing well and we are all called upon to put the interests of the country and party first. If we have to enlist the support of angels with a tight fist to respond to the needs of our nation, we will do it. The country deserves better. We have the team, the manifesto but we don’t intend to rest upon our laurels because the end of this regime is nigh.
What about the MMM? Do you feel that the MMM leader has managed to pacify everyone and allow the party to face the next election serenely?
It is going through a metamorphosis stage. As a reliable party in opposition, I wish the MMM well.
Some people think the general election will be next year while others believe that the MSM will wait until the Metro Express is up and running to showcase it as a sign that the country has modernised. What do you think?
The Metro Express has far too many hidden costs to be a showcase. The minister of public infrastructure (Nando Boodha – Ed) has stated openly that there are many unknowns and the likely problems the project will encounter in Quatre Bornes remain a big headache. Besides, the Metro Express stops running when a cyclone class 2 is in force. Its ridership’s prediction to mitigate cost is doubtful. It will end up being a very expensive project which will engulf huge subsidy. It’s a doomsday scenario irrespective. This government is a closed chapter.