With the enactment of the Covid and Quarantine bills into law last week, Weekly speaks to Cassam Uteem, former president of the republic. He highlights a number of changes to the law which have raised suspicion as to their motives. He also gives his opinion on the government’s handling of the pandemic as well as the opposition’s performance.
There is a lot of anger, confusion, fear and disappointment out there due to the Covid and Quarantine Acts. Do you share any of these feelings or do you join the government’s view that these are fraught with good intentions?
Isn’t it said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions? I believe if one’s intentions are good and one wishes to obtain unanimous adhesion to or a broad consensus on a matter reckoned to be of paramount importance to the country, beyond party politics and partisan views, one should be prepared to have extensive consultations with the various stakeholders and while giving due weight and consideration to their unbiased opinions try by presenting convincing arguments to win over the sceptics and be, at the same time, ready for some compromise that wouldn’t dilute the essence of the policy or project. I am therefore disappointed that such an essential exercise between government, opposition, trade unions and other concerned parties were not thought necessary before presenting the two bills to the National Assembly.
Meetings did take place between the prime minister, the leader of the opposition and trade union leaders, didn’t they?
Had the true spirit of consultation prevailed during those meetings prior to the presentation of the two bills in the National Assembly, it’s unlikely that there would have been such an outcry against them from the opposition benches, starting with the leader of the opposition himself. Some of their legitimate apprehensions would have already been addressed.
Is that why you are disappointed?
I am all the more disappointed because after going through an unprecedented sanitary crisis, during which we were witness to a remarkable outpouring of public solidarity and selfless service to the community, I feel that an opportunity to transcend our differences and present a united front to a population in complete disarray after weeks of nervously-strained confinement, has been wasted.
Whose fault is that?
It is the duty of government to convince the people out there of the real objective of each amendment to the existing legislation and show that the new provisions that are being proposed are meant to meet the inadequacies in the existing legislation as a result of new situations created by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Hasn’t the government done that through ministers explaining on the MBC the need for such amendments?
Many of us can and I am sure do understand the need and the relevance of some of the amendments proposed but others have absolutely no bearing at all with the pandemic. There was therefore imperative need to dispel the impression that Covid-19 is being used as a pretext to ram some unpalatable pills down the throat of the population. I was expecting the prime minister to deliver a strong rebuttal of these allegations in his summing-up speech in the last National Assembly meeting and give the assurance that there was no hidden motive behind any of the new clauses introduced in the two bills. It was unfortunately not to be and hence the air of suspicion lingers on.
Which ones of the 56 laws being changed worries you the most?
Several provisions of the Covid 19 Act are highly objectionable and outright reprehensible, in particular the ones related to workers’ rights, the Bank of Mauritius, the additional powers given to the minister of finance and the local manufacture of pharmaceutical products and their registration.
Why is the reduction in annual leave such a big issue? Don’t workers need to catch up with the time lost?
There are a few rights enjoyed by our workers that are sacrosanct. Annual leave entitlement is one of them. Our ancestors used to work from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week for a pittance. Successive generations of workers and trade unionists have had to struggle to secure better conditions of work, including annual leave entitlements. In the process, some were imprisoned, exiled and quite a few even lost their lives. Unmindful of this acquired right, this act deprives the workers of 15 days of their annual leave to the benefit of their employers. This is simply unacceptable even as a temporary measure. If, as some scientists believe, the coronavirus has come to stay with us, this measure is likely to become permanently temporary!
You also mentioned the amendment to the Bank of Mauritius (BoM) Act. Why do you take exception to that?
That act would literally make of the BoM a ‘branch’ of the Ministry of Finance! The act gives to the finance minister unfettered powers to transfer from the Consolidated Fund Rs15 billion instead of Rs3.5 billion as is the case now, to specially created funds that would fall outside the National Assembly scrutiny. This is tantamount to consciously issuing a blank cheque for the depletion of the public coffers!
What about the amendment to the Pharmacy Act you hinted to above? A problem with that too?
To provide for the setting up of a local pharmaceutical plant and the registration of locally-produced pharmaceutical medicines at such lightning speed is akin to delivering a licence to kill! It also goes against the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) guidelines. Why this haste one can wonder. In the meantime, the transfer of experienced professionals from the Pharmacy Board leaves room for all sorts of conjecture and wild speculation.
What kind of speculation? That someone may be favoured to open a pharmaceutical plant, for example?
Such seems to be the case and, according to unverified information, the Covid Act is a flying start signal given for the project initiated by some local and foreign investors and provides a fast track channel for the registration of the locally manufactured drugs while powers to exempt certain drugs from registration requirement altogether now rest with the hand-picked Pharmacy Board. Every year, contracts worth hundreds of millions of rupees are awarded for the supply of drugs for free dispensing in our public hospitals. One can easily imagine how lucrative a business it can represent, especially if there is connivance for the procurement procedures and regulations to be astutely obviated.
How do you know this is not fake news?
In that case, all the more imperative for the Ministry of Health to at least provide an explanation of the rationale behind that particularly astonishing amendment to the Pharmacy Act.
What about the amendment to the Quarantine Act, giving the police such wide powers?
I am ruffled by that act too which confirms and even consolidates the already extensive existing powers to the police to enter premises and to arrest without warrant. The numerous reported cases of flagrant abuse of power that have allegedly led so far to unexplained deaths in police cells and prisons should have served as eye-openers to the legislators and made them refrain from acting as recklessly as they have done.
How do you feel about the way the government has handled the Covid-19 pandemic in general?
After giving the impression that it was groping in the dark, totally unprepared, with a lot of dilly-dallying before taking the decision to close our frontiers and announce a complete lockdown, for example, and that people in the know affirm would have avoided unnecessary deaths, one has to admit that the government handled the pandemic as well as it could, that is, satisfactorily, while the majority of the population showed quite a remarkable sense of discipline and understanding. The communication strategy put in place through the MBC paid dividends and the information and instructions given were quite useful and generally followed.
No new cases detected for more than two weeks now and no one in quarantine. Are we out of the woods, according to you?
Thank God, the coronavirus seems to be on its way out. However, as hinted earlier, it would appear from some reliable quarters that the virus has come to stay. We, therefore, have to be extremely cautious and, until further notice, stick to the ‘New Normal’ life of regularly using sanitisers, practising social distancing and wearing appropriate masks and avoiding handshaking, kissing and hugging.
The government is being criticised for its dictatorial ways but the opposition is also taking the heat for their perpetual walkouts. Do you feel that the democratic game can be played in such conditions?
One of the characteristics of a democratic society is the separation of powers. The Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary function independently of one another and have each their own sphere of influence and operation. Each one’s autonomy is respected and no interference of one with the other is accepted or even tolerated. In democratic Mauritius, if we can take pride in the fact that the Judiciary functions as an autonomous body that acts without fear or favour, we have, however, to deplore that the Legislature has turned into a mere rubber stamp and acts as an extension of the Executive. The cabinet of ministers decides and parliament invariably acquiesces. Ours has thus become a flawed democracy. The leader of the House, who is the prime minister, not only decides when and how often parliament should meet but he can also veto the Order Paper. For the past so many years now, there has not been a single case of an MP of the majority challenging even a single clause of any bill debated in the House. The opposition voices and views rarely matter and its suggestions or proposals never or exceptionally considered. The speaker of the House has a crucial role to play in ensuring the proper functioning of the National Assembly. He is not expected to take sides. He acts more like a referee and while ensuring that the Standing Orders are not flouted, he is the protector of the minority groups. As with the wise man of the story, he hears and sees as much as he ought to, not as much as he can. He acts tactfully and gracefully and has the art of diffusing the most delicate of situations.
Are you praising our current speaker?
I am merely describing some of the attributes that make for an ideal speaker and what immediately comes to mind is the very first Mauritian who held that important post. It is an undisputed fact that in Sir Harilal Vaghjee we had one such speaker.
When there no longer exist favourable conditions for healthy debate and objective analysis of legislative measures proposed, and when the majority invariably follows party line blindly while the speaker’s rulings, which don’t seem to have the merit of consistency, are constantly challenged by members of the opposition, there is bound to be frustration especially on the opposition side of the House. But they have got to learn to live with it and, as in a football match, when the referee wrongly shows a red card to a player, the whole of the unjustly penalised team doesn’t leave the field, so should it be in the parliamentary arena. Spontaneous walkouts out of solidarity with an opposition member or leader shouted out of the House serves only to frustrate people out there and is considered, more often than not, a dereliction of duty and should only exceptionally be resorted to.
Mauritius is on the EU blacklist of countries engaged in money laundering. The government has shifted the blame to 2010. Your thoughts?
I thought the pa mwa sa li sa era was over with Sir Anerood Jugnauth (SAJ) leaving the stage but it doesn’t seem to be so. Such arguments as the one used by the minister responsible for financial services convinces no one but himself! In spite of the numerous pieces of legislation introduced to combat money laundering and terrorism financing, the country has not been able to convince the European Commission of our determination to genuinely fight these scourges. In a brilliant exposé in l’express of 15 May 2020, former Executive of Financial Services Commission and currently Independent Consultant Rehana Kasenally-Pondor deals with the strategic deficiencies identified in the European Union Report and demonstrates how the ‘systemic and systematic shortcomings of effective and comprehensive supervision both in the Global Business sector and the domestic market’ have led to the fall in grace of our international finance centre. Instead of wasting both time and energy shifting the blame to others, the minister would be well inspired to follow the free advice given by Mrs Kasenally-Pondor and realise it is high time legal changes were brought about “to establish a high level effective operational framework for all stakeholders (competent authorities and reporting persons/entities, namely the Financial Services Commission (FSC), BoM, Registrar of Companies, Financial Intelligence Unit, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), Mauritius Police, Mauritius Revenue Authority, Director of Public Prosecutions Office, the Gambling Regulatory Authority (GRA), management companies, financial institutions and Designated Non-Financial Businesses and Professions (DNFBPs),
Some people are calling for a government of national unity in these hard times when the right skills are lacking on the government side. Do you agree with that or would be end up in a more severe dictatorship?
I can think of no situation our country has had to face in recent history worse than the current one. Locked down for almost two months now, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is faced with unprecedented challenges as all economic activities came to a near halt, with very little hope of a quick recovery in the short or even medium term. Government policy is in tatters while the private sector is reeling under the numerous shocks it has suffered. Our national carrier literally nosedived and is grounded, the tourism industry is on its knees while our export is going through a period of stagnation and production at an all time low. Prices of a number of basic commodities have hiked up with a direct effect on the cost of living of the average household. People have been out of work for several weeks, living on social aid and the looming threat of mass unemployment is simply frightening. If you think I am painting a picture bleaker or more depressing than what the situation actually is, I am not. If you think I am making a case or a plea for the formation of a government of national unity, I am, indeed. Desperate times call for desperate measures! But certainly not a government of national unity hastily cobbled together and at-all-cost. A government of national unity must above all be based on a sustainable programme of profound economic, social and environmental reforms, off the beaten track, with emphasis on, among other things, the elimination of poverty, on food security, greater social justice, enhanced public health services, a more inclusive educational system and an environment-friendly development. A government that would be able to bring about greater social cohesion and patriotic fervour and inspire the population to greater heights of commitment, effort and sacrifice, ministers leading by example, adopting simple living and working habits, avoiding waste of public funds, foregoing some of the indecent privileges attached to certain posts including their own and eliminating all the superfluous posts, those sinecures specially created for the ‘boys’, setting up a maximum salary ceiling for high administrative public and private sector cadres to narrow the existing glaring salary gaps and disparities and social inequalities. A government that would show its determination in fighting corruption by straightaway putting an end to the current despotic rule and nepotism and placing a high premium on competence and integrity at all levels of management, especially in the parastatal bodies, allowing the fundamental institutions of the country to operate with total independence and autonomy, free from political interference, while being under public scrutiny through parliament. A government that would practise transparency in all its dealings and at all levels, provide for proper checks and balances to create a more robust democracy, with effective separation of powers, introduce a freedom of Information Act and encourage the free exercise of the right to information.
A utopian government, you mean?
Maybe but it is such a government that is required to take our country out of its present predicament.