Parliament in a coma By Eusi Kwayana
Stabroek News
January 20, 2002

Official statements have recently been trying to compare Guyana's parliamentary practice with that of "established democracies."

Hon Reepu Daman Persaud assured the public that "no government minister will chair his or her respective committee" and then explained that the Government's position "coincides with what obtains in the USA, the UK and Canada among other established democracies." This article will examine not the whole of democracy, but parliament only.

When President Cheddi Jagan opened the Seventh Parliament, he declared that it would become "the highest forum in the land." It is not the highest since it is by far the laziest parliament in CARICOM, now with T&T as a rival to be feared.

How has the PPP changed, and not changed parliament?

The minister working as the PPP/C's House Leader from 1993 was ready during a debate to grant extensions of speaking time not only to members of his own party, but also to non PPP members, including members of small parties, when the allotted 30 minutes expired.

The PNC in the House granted extensions at times only to themselves and to opposition leader Cheddi Jagan, certainly not to a member of a small party. Secondly, the PPP majority was, compared to the previous regime, open to allowing bills to be sent to Select Committee. Three bills, which went through this process, were the Termination of Pregnancy Bill, the Labour Relations Bill and the Integrity Bill and recently, the Medical Council Bill. The former regime had rejected motions for the Narcotic Bill, the Offshore Banking Bill and others to go to a Select Committee.

On the other hand, the PPP/C later passed the strategic and very anti labour Revenue Authority Bill and other even more complicated bills without a Select Committee.

After 1992 the production of Hansard, the exact record of what is said and done in the National Assembly began to be printed again. It had been absent for the whole of the Sixth Parliament. No issue has appeared since the start of the Eighth Parliament last May 2001.

The PPP/C began including small parties in the Select Committees appointed by the Selection Committee of the Assembly. The PNC also showed a noteworthy change by consulting the smaller parties of the opposition, even when they did not agree with it.

The PPP/C had also followed a practice of consulting outside parliament on controversial issues and had, on MP Roopnaraine's insistence worked with the other parties in a committee on electoral reform.

Few other parliamentary credits can be given to the present ruling party. It can be credited, though, with the virtual muzzling of the people's elected representatives. Teenage Guyanese must be receiving the dimmest impressions of parliament, as a set of men and women called MPs who come up like bubbles every now and then suddenly burst and vanish.

In the sectoral committees' argument, the Hon Leader of the House referred with pride to the fact that in the sectoral committees' issue his government's hands were clean and constitutional, being in keeping with Standing Order 72 (1). This Standing Order, reads, "Every Select Committee shall be so constituted as to ensure that so far as possible, that the balance of parties, in the Assembly is reflected in the Committee." Balance of parties in the Assembly has been in practice a political judgment.

The Standing Orders remain unchanged. If any Standing Order is not in keeping with the constitutional changes in governance, it is the Standing Order which must be altered and not the Constitution. The Standing Orders appear to be a form of delegated legislation.

'Established democracies' also have Standing Orders regarding sittings of parliament, as Hon Reepu Daman Persaud said on Sunday, January 6.

Standing Order 8 reads, "Save as otherwise provided by the Constitution or resolved by the Assembly upon a motion moved by a Minister, the Assembly shall sit every day except Saturdays and Sunday and, unless the Assembly otherwise decide, every adjournment shall be to the next sitting day." The use of "shall" is not by chance.

Regular meetings according SO 8 are bypassed by applying the provision, which allows a Minister to move "that the Assembly adjourn to a date to be fixed." This motion is always carried. It is a legal way of bypassing the standing order.

Yet there is no record of an opposition challenge to these motions for adjournment to "a day to be fixed." There is as yet no management committee of parliament installed to fix a date. The Minister of Parliamentary Affairs has consulted other parties about a suitable date, but always when the Government wants a sitting and not at the request of the opposition.

Before the 2000 recess, there were at least 40 available days, and after recess over 50 days for sitting. Of approximately 90 days, the parliament used 19 days for sittings, including nine for this year's Estimates. This is a parliament in a coma and it ought to make voters wonder what the elaborate preparation and big expenditure for the election of MPs were all about. It is hoped that those who financed the election did not intend to use their taxpayers' money to finance an unemployed parliament, where the members seem to be retrenched, underemployed, or pensioned off.

In the PNC's favour, or rather then President Hoyte's, it can be said that during his tenure, with 'politically incorrect' Mr Sase Narine as Speaker, questions and motions appeared on a notice paper five days after they were handed in at the Clerk's Office. This is not now the case. They talk of the 'customs of parliament,' but customs are conveniently adopted or discarded. The five day custom is one which should have been continued.

Ignorance about parliament is spreading and shows itself in high places. Minister of Home Affairs, Hon Ronald Gajraj, who can ignore the judgment of an inquest even when it goes against his public position, made an interesting statement. In rejecting the need for debate on police shootings, he claimed that motion had been moved "through the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs" for a debate in the House on the issue. What but a sense of total control would lead Mr Gajraj to think that motions are moved through minister. The motion in question was tabled by Ms Debbie Backer, MP, and appeared on a notice paper on August 9, 20001. On June 8, 2001 a previous notice paper with MP Raphael Trotman's questions on the Law Books contract had been published. Neither the motion nor the questions have been placed on an order paper to be considered by Parliament.

Ms Sheila Holder has moved a number of questions on separate issues from late October. After more than two months none has appeared on a notice paper. She has also moved a motion.

The practice is that the Clerk receives these motions and questions, passes them to the Speaker to decide whether they are in order, and then places them on a notice paper. If they are not in order, the Speaker has the power to advise a revision or to reject them. The present 'politically correct' Speaker is not succeeding well in this, nor has any PPP Speaker since 1992. It is unthinkable that the party in parliament will do anything other than help the present Speaker to maintain the high reputation he took from the bar table to the Speaker's chair.

On January 6, Hon Reepu Daman Persaud, in a TV interview on Channel 11 suggested that members' days would held when there was sufficient business for them. But if they begin to be held, more business may flow from private members. Although he said that members' motions could come up at any sitting, he made no attempt to explain why MP Backer's and the others had not come up after three working months. There has been enough business for a sitting at which private members' business has priority. If not, why have the motions and questions not come up in the sittings held?

The searchlight must now turn on the major opposition in parliament comprising 27 members, elected in an election they did not control.

Their voters must be wondering whether they took all that time and effort to elect a number of people without any power whatever to make use of the National Assembly. Many Ministers, Speakers, MPs and other officials who take an oath of office continue to see themselves as free agents. This is not my view. Being false to the oath of office is itself a violation of the oath. Unfortunately, tribunals in our country have tended to ignore this aspect of public accountability. Perhaps they do not see the oath as a piece of legislation. Whether the tribunals are ready for this or not, the people should be clear that an office holder's conduct is bound by the official oath.

Here is the oath of office, now the First Schedule to the constitution:

"I... do hereby solemnly declare that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the people of Guyana, that I will faithfully execute the office of... without fear, or favour, affection or ill will and that in the execution of the function of that office I will honour, uphold and preserve the constitution of the Co ooperaitve Republic of Guyana."

Article 1 altered the name of the country to the Republic of Guyana.

The First Schedule at the end retains the former name.