Thoughts on Old Year's Day or New Year's Eve Editorial
Stabroek News
December 31, 2003

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The terms which describe this day are now used interchangeably. However, for older persons it was always Old Year's Day or Night. The term New Year's Eve came later, some say from Scotland or America. Yet each term could point to a difference in perspectives. Old Year's Night revelry may be seen as a way of washing away the difficulties of the year just ending, while the New Year's Eve partying is seen as a celebration to welcome in a brand new year with all its promises and potential.

In any event New Year resolutions often go no further than a determination to resolve the left-over problems of the old year. So here is perhaps more of a wish than a resolution namely that our leaders will move this year beyond what one may call the politics of mechanisms and procedures (as distinct from issues) which if it did not dominate certainly coloured the old year. It was a deep preoccupation with establishing or putting together or the envisaged operation of the so-called inclusionary and related provisions of the amended constitution. It may be the preoccupation derived from deep distrust or perhaps from too sanguine a belief that the carefully chosen membership of a commission could somehow dissipate conflict and magically produce the goodwill and consensus which has so far eluded the society.

Consider the prolonged process which has gone into the appointment of the Service Commissions and the other constitutional commissions. In support of the contention that the preoccupation with "mechanics" virtually became an end itself rather than a means of dealing with issues more effectively, consider further one of the "mechanisms" already in place eg., the sectoral scrutiny committees established by Parliament and how they have so far mostly failed to get going. Such a system of committees which are at the core of parliamentary process could be a powerful instrument in tilting the balance of power back toward Parliament and away from executive domination. It is therefore to be deplored that as far as it has been reported, only two of these committees, Natural Resources and Economic Activities have begun to meet. Instead of apparently waiting for specially arranged parliamentary facilities such very small committees whose chairmanship is rotated between Government and the Opposition could surely meet in any available suitable room with minutes being taken by a member or some person identified for that purpose. Parliament in this respect could set an example for the nation in expediting public business.

The government insists that these "inclusionary" provisions so recently introduced into the constitution must be made to work and to generate trust, before any other constitutional changes are embarked upon. The World Bank in its much discussed report on Guyana has apparently taken the same view. To quote the precise words of the World Bank "the measures should be given a chance to work before any further instalments of power- sharing are contemplated." It clearly makes good sense for both Government and Opposition to ensure that the new commissions should become operational as soon as possible moving from organisation to substance, before further fundamental constitutional reforms are attempted.

It has been announced that the service commissions will be appointed today. Tackling the backlog of appointments with urgency could go far in restoring public confidence in the constitution.

Yet it will be unrealistic to think that the insistent demand for shared governance will just disappear. It is widely considered that it is an idea whose time has come. It is not proposed to discuss deeply the merits and the demerits of the several proposals on this subject but it should be noted that wherever such far reaching constitutional change has been introduced, it has encountered grave difficulties in operation, witness Northern Ireland and Fiji where it should be remarked that the main beneficiary of shared governance are the Fijians of Indian descent. In Fiji it has taken a court order to compel the Prime Minister to include in his cabinet members of the Opposition.

The long delay in reaching agreement on the service commissions led to protracted delays in appointments to major posts such as the Police Commissioner, Judges and so on. But the delays which might result from operational difficulties with shared governance would be of an altogether different magnitude. They could bring public business to a stop for long periods and precipitate Guyana into the category of a failed state.

Moreover, the change to shared governance would be of an order of importance second only to the introduction of the present constitution. It is not a minor addition or refinement or clarification of intent but a fundamental change in the most important provision namely the creation of the executive (government) itself.

It is therefore not clear that it could be properly negotiated within the context of the Constitutional Review Committee.

As in several quarters the demand for shared governance is projected as coming from the people with the view that there could be instability if the people's wishes are thwarted, would it not in these circumstances be wholly appropriate to subject the shared governance proposals in due course to a referendum. After all the introduction of the current constitution was subject to a referendum.

The proposal outlined above or some variant of it may enable the shared governance proposal to be dealt with constructively without further immobilising the political process.

In a recent address on "Responsibilities of Freedom" Dr Condoleezza Rice, Assistant to the US President for National Security Affairs, given to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London asserted: "Democracy is not easy. Its institutions are not the natural embodiment of human nature but its aspirations certainly are. Our own histories should remind us that the union of democratic principle and practice is always work in progress."

In the light of such pertinent insights there must be continuing public discussion and clarification on the operations of the new inclusionary provisions. Searching questions must be asked. Who, for example, is a Social Partner and who is a Stakeholder and should not the same criteria of transparency and accountability be applied to them if they are to play important roles in governance?

In the new year there will be an overarching need for stable order so that Guyana can give undivided attention to external developments which could threaten the viability of the economy of Guyana and its territorial integrity. As is well known, Caricom is now confronted by three sets of negotiations, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the negotiations with the European Union for a successor agreement of COTONOU and with the World Trade Organisation (WTO). While the outcome of these negotiations may hold out the prospect of new trade opportunities, it is more than likely, unless there is a major diplomatic effort by Caricom to secure Special and Differential Treatment, that there will be the dismantling of the preferential markets and commodity pricing arrangement on which Caricom States particularly Guyana are so heavily dependent. At the same time, the insistence on reciprocal trading arrangements may lead to the prising open of the small regional markets to the inflow of cheap subsidised goods including agricultural products which could destroy the farming sector and small local industries.

Likewise, disorder in the wider region plus lack of internal consensus in Guyana could prove tempting for further territorial threats and incursions. Hence the imperative need in the New Year for ensuring that the new constitutional provisions do not divide but are made to support a national consensus.