Viewpoint on Sectoral Committees of Parliament By Mr Raphael Trotman, PNC/R Member of Parliament
Guyana Chronicle
February 4, 2002

RECENTLY, the issue of the establishment of four sectoral standing committees of the National Assembly has gained widespread prominence. The People’ National Congress Reform believes that as a matter of constitutional right, these committees should be established forthwith. The PNC Reform position on this issue is quite clear:

The Committees must be established immediately;

The Committees must be chaired by the Opposition; and

Ministers of the Government must not be members of the Committees.

This position is well founded in law, and practice. Oversight committees of Parliament if meant to be effective, must be freed of the restraint of Government control. There is another very good and legal reason why these committees should be devoid of Ministerial representation. Article 106 (1) and (2) of the Guyana Constitution expressly provides that there shall be a Cabinet for Guyana. Sub-article (2), is most instructive, and reads thus: “The Cabinet shall aid and advise the President in the general direction, and control of the Government of Guyana and shall be collectively responsible therefore to the Parliament.”

It appears obvious therefore that Ministers of the Government are collectively responsible for the work of each other. Ministers cannot sit in oversight committees because they will be reviewing their work, and that of their colleagues. This would make a mockery of the Constitution and cannot be condoned.

The Government spokespersons and apologists have argued that in a conventional parliamentary environment, the government or ruling party should have a majority of the membership and also, the chairmanship of Parliamentary committees. I wish to state categorically that the prevailing situation in Guyana is far from normal, and therefore obviously requires extraordinary approaches to governance. It is in this vein, that the Constitutional Reform Commission and other framers of the revised constitution decided in 1999, to unveil the framework for a new parliamentary architecture. This architecture, which would bear some features of the previous model, would also include for the first time, the appointment of four sectoral standing committees. Even if there is no Commonwealth or other precedent for these committees, we have a responsibility to implement a Guyanese solution for a Guyanese problem of governance.

It has been said that a law is valuable not because it is simply law, but because there is right in it. We say that there is absolute right in this law embodied in our Constitution.

If critics indeed demand a precedent, they may peruse the Standing Orders pertaining to the Public Accounts Committee, which is chaired by the Opposition. The reason for this is to ensure transparency, and proper oversight of the nation’s public accounts. The same obtains with these four constitutional committees.

What does the Constitution say at article 119B (1) about these committees which are agreed by the PPP/C representatives at every step of the way, and which they are now in an expression of bad faith, contesting:

“There shall be parliamentary sectoral committees established by the National Assembly with responsibility for the scrutiny of all areas of Government policy and administration including:

natural resources;

economic services;

foreign relations;

social services.”

The constitutional provision goes on to expressly provide as follows: “The Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of each parliamentary sectoral committee shall be elected from the opposite sides of the National Assembly.”

This constitutional provision was debated, and passed by the National Assembly and finally assented to by no less a person than the President of the Republic, on the 31st July 2001. Is it that there are some within the ruling administration who are bent on undermining the President by flouting laws that he assented to or is there some other sinister mischief afoot? Despite giving their vote of approval, the PPP/C now nonchalantly seeks to renege from the agreement that now has the force of constitutional law. This is a very dangerous occurrence. It smacks of bad faith and moreover, shows the regime’s ease in thwarting and setting aside the constitution to suit its narrow political objectives. If we as a nation are determined to foster an environment in which decency, trust, and honour stand above selfish political gain, we must eschew such behaviour.

During the Constitutional Reform Commission debates on this constitutional amendment, it was reported by a leading member of the PPP/C executive that there was consensus and thus agreement, on the sectoral committees. In his own words, he said: “…we have agreed… There shall be established Sector standing committees of the National Assembly which should have responsibility for scrutiny of all areas of government policy and administration”.

The idea was, and still is despite attacks on it, that the National Assembly would be more deliberative, more forceful, more vigilant, and more participatory thus fulfilling its role as the watchdog of the people. After all, this was the very spirit and intendment of the Herdmanston Accord, and St. Lucia Statement of 1998, which incidentally, also recommended the immediate appointment of a Management Committee of Parliament. We were as a people, enjoined to find ways to settle our devastating socio-political problems. To this end we embarked on a process of dialogue, and constitutional reform. As an immediate measure the functioning of the National Assembly was to be given priority.

Today, we are left to ask the question whether the work of the CRC, and members of Parliament was all in vain, or perhaps, is being deliberately undermined? I am driven to answer yes with respect to the latter question. There is no doubt in the collective minds of the PNC/REFORM that the PPP/C is now uncomfortable with the idea of oversight committees enquiring into various ministries and agencies because; they know quite well what may be discovered. It is also the belief of all the Opposition parties in Parliament that the wishes of the people and the force of the Constitution are being flouted and deliberately undermined in this instance.

Recently, in a comment proffered by a PPP/C spokesman the view was canvassed that the opposition forces in Guyana are demanding chunks of the executive power. This preposterous argument is without merit and reveals a myopic and destructive view that in the political affairs of Guyana, the government alone and no other must decide what gets done, when, how, where and by whom. When is the PPP/C going to come to the realisation that this archaic view of governance based on total control to the exclusion of all others, is what is literally suffocating this country.

In a recent publication aptly entitled “Parliamentary Committees: Enhancing Democratic Governance”, committees of Parliament have been described as “a means to secure greater surveillance of the executive by Parliament”. How can a committee secure greater surveillance of the executive if a cabinet Minister sits on, or chairs a committee, or for that matter, the chairmanship of that committee is held by a government MP? To answer yes to these questions is to expose oneself to ridicule as being intellectually challenged. Member of Parliament of India Jaswant Singh himself writes;

“Parliamentary Committees have come to play a major role in modern parliamentary systems as a means of ensuring executive accountability.” This accountability can only be achieved if parliamentary committees are not hamstrung and/or muzzled, as the PPP/C would prefer.

The People’s National Congress/Reform therefore expects that the constitution of Guyana will be honoured. We cannot, and will not allow the sanctity of the Constitution to be violated in this vile manner. It now remains to be seen whether the PPP/C will show respect for, and abide by the Constitution of our Republic. The People’s National Congress/Reform remains committed to respecting the provisions of our revised Constitution
(First broadcast on GTV Channel 11 on Monday, January 21, 2002)