The public purse and the smokescreen

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The war being waged by members of government against the president about her overseas trips is mean, demeaning and arguably hides a much bigger malaise than Government House may want to let on. The wrangling may in fact be symptomatic of a deep institutional tension.

I am not defending President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim. I was one of the first journalists to have criticised her for accepting to have her trips paid for by just about anyone willing to do so, including beauty product giant L’Oréal. Nor do I approve of her current trip to Montessori School and still less the one to Lovely Professional University, which seems to be in the middle of a huge controversy. I am one of those who believe that the presidency is a solemn institution and should not be degraded by accepting free trips and collecting per diem from the state at the same time. I am also prepared to concede that as far as public funds are concerned, the State House has beaten all records this year.

Having said that, I do not agree that members of this government should target the State House when every Tom, Dick and Harry in government is jumping on the travel gravy train and milking the state as much as they possibly can. At a time when the prime minister himself has just returned from a pretty useless conference at Montessori School itself and is going to the Francophonie summit in Madagascar. At a time when 10 ministers were out of the country, seven of whom were in the Vatican working very hard to steal the thunder of the newly-anointed cardinal, Maurice Piat. At a time when a Rs33million limousine is allegedly waiting for a royal bottom to warm one of its seats. At a time when the opposition had to withdraw several questions in parliament due to the absence of ministers, how dare members of government preach to the president or to anyone else about public funds!

If government really cared two hoots about public funds, ministers would have started by regulating their own overseas trips and their spending, instead of contributing to the increase of public debt by Rs20 billion every year. One of the first actions this government took was to increase the per diem which was already through the roof, thus making it one of the highest in the world. So ministers started tripping over themselves (pardon the pun!) to run away from the country they were elected to govern. And, as the example always comes from above, heads of parastatals and other government entities quickly got the message that it’s a free ride and followed suit.

So when the State House budget went up to nearly Rs90 million up from about Rs56 million in the previous budget and when, for the first time in the history of the presidency, an additional Rs4.8 million had to be voted, we did not hear any protest. So why now?

With the lack of leadership in the country, the president, like everyone else, has been taking on a role which is not hers under the constitution and we have, over the last year, been witness to a modification of our constitutional regime, without any change in the constitution. This naturally must have happened with the consent and help of highly-placed officials.

As a result of that, some fear that the media spotlight may be moving from Port Louis to Réduit and this is what has led to animosity against the president and anyone seen to be party to this situation. It is another pernicious internal war in which we can see the bullets but not the reasons behind the declaration of war. It is about the balance of power. Pretending that the debate is about public finances is an eyewash. If there is anything which this government cares least about, it is precisely the public purse.

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