Parliamentary Revolution By Robert Persaud
Guyana Chronicle
November 2, 2003

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THE current or Eighth Parliament of Guyana is revolutionary when compared with the preceding seven. The past 30 months have witnessed a very quiet, but yet profound revolution in terms of the role and powers of Parliament emerging from the pre-2001 Constitutional Reform Process. Guyana now has an executive-type Parliament.

There are several features that have contributed to this quiet revolution in the legislative branch of government.

Some critical powers which all previous Executive Presidents of Guyana enjoyed were reposed in or shifted to the National Assembly. The current President is now beholden to Parliament for guidance on important appointments and decisions, which were once at the discretion of his/her predecessors. As a result of the revolutionising of Parliament, the Presidency in Guyana, following the 2001 elections, has been redefined.

In the past, the Executive President could have caused the dissolution of Parliament with the stroke of a pen if the august body was deliberating on a piece of legislation or conducting an enquiry, which he or she (President) was not in favour of. This enormous, excessive power has been removed.

The appointment of service commissions - Public, Police, Judicial and Teaching - was, before 2001, carried out by the President after simply consulting with the Leader of the Opposition. Now, Parliament is entrusted with this critical task through a special Appointive Committee, which recommends nominees to these commissions to the National Assembly for approval. The approved names are then forwarded to the President for swearing in.

Parliament now plays a key role in the appointment of the Commissioner of Police, judges and a plethora of constitutional post holders including the members of Constitutional Commissions - Ethnic Relations, Human Rights, Indigenous People, Gender Equality, and Public Procurement. Previously, the President made these appointments based on his own deliberate judgment.

Another important aspect is that this President is the first to have a constitutional limitation on whom he appoints to his Cabinet. One of the new provisions allows him only four technocratic ministers and the others must come from the List of Candidates.

In the new scheme of things, the hands of the President of Guyana are now on making decisive decisions and important appointments.

The main reason why police officers and public servants cannot be promoted and the Commissioner of Police-designate is yet to assume his post has been due to the constitutional role of the National Assembly in these processes. The reason for sloth was due to the main opposition party's boycott of Parliament for about 11 months and by extension of its veto on movements in these areas.

As pointed out in the February 2003 PPP/C Paper on Inclusive Governance: "A Constitutional Reform Commission was established and the PPP/C agreed to substantial reforms that advance the process of inclusive governance.

The Constitution was amended to provide for:

(a) Reducing the powers of the President;

(b) An Opposition veto on the appointment of the Chancellor and Chief Justice;

(c) Expanding the functions of the Judicial Service Commission;

(d) Strengthening the financial independence of the Judiciary and

Auditor General;

(e) Institutionalising participation by social groups in the decision-making process;

(f) Expanding human rights;

(g) Involving the National Assembly in the appointment of Service Commissions (Public, Police, Judicial and Teaching);

(h) Modifying the electoral system for national and local government elections;

(i) Establishing of five Standing Committees to examine and review government policy in the social, economic, foreign policy and natural resources sectors;

(j) A Parliamentary Management Committee;

(k) A Human Rights Commission;

(l) An Ethnic Relations Commission;

(m) A Procurement Commission;

(n) A Standing Committee on Constitutional Reform;

(o) A Commission to review the functioning and composition of the security forces; and

(p) Commissions on the Rights of the Child, Gender Rights and Indigenous Peoples.

These and other reforms make the Guyana Constitution the most advanced in terms of inclusiveness and Opposition involvement in governance in the Caribbean region and certainly one of the most advanced in the world."

The period when Parliament could have been accused of being the Executive arm's rubber stamp is over. The role of the opposition is no longer just to oppose and speak out on government's policies and action. The opposition, sitting with the Government, can contribute meaningfully to national policies and programmes.

This Parliament has four sector committees: natural resources, foreign relations, economic services and social services. The terms of reference of these committees cover every single aspect of government operations. Not only do the opposition sit on these committees, but also hold the rotating chair for two of the four. Already, these committees have commenced work and are making full use of the opportunity to be further included in the national decision-making process.

There is also the very important Public Accounts Committee, which is chaired by the Opposition. This committee looks at government's revenue and expenditure in detail using the Auditor General's Report, which, since 1992, is produced annually. Importantly and as part of the fundamental change since the governance arrangements, the Auditor General's Department no longer reports to the Minister of Finance. Its annual reports on government's financial transactions are presented directly to the National Assembly. There are many other important and critical changes, which have positively affected the governance landscape in Guyana during the past 30 months.

The foregoing changes and others did come with adjustments in the management of the business of the National Assembly. For instance, there is a Parliamentary Management Committee (PMC) comprising representatives of all Parties in the National Assembly. This was not a constitutional requirement, but the government, in accordance with the revolutionary changes and new roles of Parliament, consented to this enlightened position.

The agenda of Parliament is no longer at the sole discretion of the government. The PMC determines the agenda of Parliament. There are special facilities for opposition business to be addressed by the National Assembly. No longer are the days when the Leader of the Opposition is barred from speaking in the National Assembly for years.

During the last session, 18 Bills were passed by the National Assembly, while 15 were tabled. A number of policy documents as well as Motions and Orders were presented. From the Opposition, 29 questions put to Ministers were answered as well as full deliberations on Motions moved.

Government's commitment to sound and good Parliamentary practices is unquestionable. A most recent example was the Minister of Finance's public admission that the Customs Duties (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2003 was not in keeping with the stipulated time frame and committed to take necessary corrective steps.

Even one of the government's harshest critics - Stabroek News - admitted in its editorial of October 21, 2003: "There can be no doubt that these reforms potentially represent a substantial movement in the level of the political culture."

(The author is the Information Liaison to the President and a PPP Executive Committee member)