Constitution reform moves forward
Parliament unanimously supports Oversight Committee proposals

By Patrick Denny
Stabroek News
September 19, 2000

The process for arriving at a revised constitution under which the upcoming general elections will be held advanced yesterday with the unanimous adoption by the National Assembly of the final report of the Oversight Committee (OSC) on Constitutional Reform.

The report, which was laid in the National Assembly yesterday was handed over to Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Reepu Daman Persaud, on August 25.

However, though supporting the motion for the adoption of the report opposition parliamentarians voiced concern about a number of issues. Among these was the likelihood that the referendum required for the amendment of certain articles was likely to become a casualty of the Herdmanston Accord timetable for holding elections in January 2001. Concern was also expressed about the amount of work still ahead to ensure that a revised constitution was in place in order for the elections to be held.

There was concern too about the need to urgently implement a public education programme so that Guyanese could be aware of their rights under the constitution and the evolution of the country's constitutional history.

The motion, among other things, requests the government to bring to the National Assembly after consultation with the parliamentary parties, matters and bills for consideration and enactment to give effect to the recommendations contained in the report.

Persaud, who piloted the motion, told the National Assembly that mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that all the parties were consulted. He told Stabroek News that it was planned to have the draft legislation circulated to the parliamentary parties for their comments before it was brought to the Assembly.

He described the process through which the recommendations had passed as having been being "tedious, complex and demanding", and that it had "a consensual element" throughout.

Persaud observed too that the discussions in the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC), the Special Select Committee and the OSC were conspicuously comradely and cordial and the exchanges, though at times sharp, were also conducted in a "healthy atmosphere".

He noted that in drafting the report, care had to be taken to ensure that the recommendations set down in language unambiguously conveyed the intentions of the CRC. However, he noted that there was still need for some refinement.

Persaud said that of the 171 recommendations made by the CRC amendments had been prepared for 163 and the remainder required the passage of legislation by the National Assembly for their enactment.

He explained that of the amendments prepared, a referendum would be required to give effect to three of them, while 68 would require approval by a two-thirds majority for their implementation. The rest require only a simple majority.

Among the recommendations which require legislative action is the establishment of the Local Government Commission and Persaud said that because local government was always under continual review it would be easier to effect changes by legislation than by amending the relevant article of the constitution.

He also noted that there were provisions for keeping the constitution under constant review and stressed the need for the development of expertise in this area.

Lance Carberry of the PNC voiced his party's desire for a public education programme that would ensure that all Guyanese understood the constitution reform process. He observed that when first broached, the proposal had been stymied by arguments about economic constraints. However, he noted that these arguments should not override the people's need to be informed about what was being done to reform the constitution.

Carberry also referred to the need for a tightly scheduled programme for implementing as quickly as possible the various recommendations. He said the National Assembly had to do its part and he hoped this would be done as expeditiously as possible.

Carberry, as an example of some the things which had to be done to implement the recommendations, cited the Ethnic Relations and Public Procurement commissions. He observed that they could become paper institutions if the necessary procedures and regulations were not put in place.

Another area for urgent action was the electoral system under which the upcoming general election is to be held. Carberry said that agreement had to be reached quickly on the relevant amendments to the existing legislation so as not to inhibit the programme of the Elections Commission to hold elections by January 15.

About the recommendation for the establishment of a parliamentary standing committee on parliamentary reform, Carberry said that constitution review had to be ongoing, as the constitution could not be reformed at "one fell swoop. It has to be an ongoing process especially since the constitution was our organic law and ought to be taking account of the dynamics of societal changes."

The United Force (TUF) leader, Manzoor Nadir, like Persaud, noted the complexity of the process which he said was characterised by suspicion, caution, the need for inclusion and the reality of the situation.

He observed that while the process might have seemed slow, if it was put in the context of the four characteristics he had referred to it would be seen to have moved a considerable way.

Nadir said that he was satisfied with the progress to date given the divergent views and that the consensual recommendations of the CRC were a solid base on which to build.

The TUF leader also referred to the need for a public education programme to explain the recommendation for geographic representation which he described as being way short of what was expected of a mixed electoral system.

The Alliance for Guyana parliamentarian, Dr Rupert Roopnaraine, referred to the enormous hurdles still to be crossed which would make tremendous demands on the discipline and time of the National Assembly.

As a consequence, he said that no time should be lost on establishing the Standing Committee for the Reform of the Constitution as many of the tasks set out to be done in the motion should be assigned to it without delay.

The AFG parliamentarian also expressed concern about Persaud's explanation that some of the amendments were still in need of refinement. "I want us to be very careful in this National Assembly in relation to refinement. As Hon members, certainly those who served on the commission, the select committee and on the oversight committee, will know that part of the methodology of the select committee and the oversight committee had been what was regarded as the inviolability of the recommendations of the Constitution Reform Commission."

He said that throughout the process they were reminded too that parliament had the sovereign right to accept or reject. However, he noted that it would be to his mind "extremely dangerous to proceed on a path where in the name of refinement we sought in terms of either turning back recommendations or seeking in fact to further amend the amendments."

Dr Roopnaraine said that too much time had been wasted in setting up the standing committees and the opportunity had been missed in establishing a more enabling parliament. He said that committees could have been established through the Standing Orders Committee.

Minister of Youth, Sport and Culture, Gail Teixeira, said that the recommendations for strengthening the parliament would help to create a new framework for conflict resolution. They would also impose a heavier workload and new responsibilities on parliamentarians because of the number of commissions and committees that would be established.

Teixeira also addressed the concern about the need for public education, explaining that it was not a task for the government alone but rather for all the parliamentary parties. She said that they all had a duty to collectively enlighten their various constituencies as to how the recommendations would impact on their lives.

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