Advice and Consent Editorial
Stabroek News
March 6, 2002

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A report in Stabroek News of Monday, February 25, quoted GAP/WPA Parliamentarian Ms Sheila Holder as saying in connection with the Parliamentary Sectoral Committees impasse that she was disappointed that the debate about the matter lacked scholarly input from the academics of the University of Guyana. This, one may note, is not the only situation in which desirable scholarly input has been lacking. It is in fact not customary for the academic community to contribute to the market of ideas on which the formulation of policy could draw. Instead, there is the growing tendency to seek out at the drop of a hat foreign consultants whenever there is need for new ideas.

There is now no tradition (as there once was) of informal public discussion of issues. Even the lively exchanges in the letter columns attract all the time the same few diligent correspondents.

Sheila Holder said other wise things, that the new committees would serve to increase efficiency and that members of the National Assembly in working together would discover that there were not the demons they made each other out to be. However, this editorial has the limited purpose of responding, though not claiming to be academic, to the need to widen the background of ideas.

First, attention is drawn to the difference between the two major democratic traditions in the English speaking world. The first derives from Britain and is characterised by its tight unitary

structure. The second is the American (the US) system which is characterised by the separation of powers.

In the British system executive power (the cabinet) derives from parliament and is closely linked to parliament in which it commands a dominant majority. Where there is a strong chief executive (usually Prime Minister) and a substantial parliamentary majority one can have, as happened in Trinidad under Eric Williams, virtually a parliamentary dictatorship. One recalls in this connection the celebrated remark of Mrs Thatcher some years ago in an interview on CBS that a British Prime Minister had altogether more power than a US President. She meant, of course, constitutional power, the power to bring about any legislative objective one wished. In this system it is not wholly a situation of persuading or convincing parliament, as ultimately one can invoke the parliamentary majority to enact legislation. More recently, in the Caribbean, the Prime Minister of St Vincent, Dr Rupert Gonsalves has forthrightly bemoaned the enormous power vested in the Prime Minister under the system.

As an aside it should be noted that the much discussed proposal for power sharing, usually meaning the sharing out of Cabinet posts (ministries) among the parties, might accelerate the tendency to dictatorial power by virtually eliminating the opposition - although it is agreed that the system could promote social cohesion.

Almost inevitably in this system which Guyana inherited the role of parliament is eroded with power steadily accruing to the executive. In this connection early in February,British MPs welcomed plans by Robin Cook, leader of the House of Commons, to reform procedures of the House so as to augment Parliament's power to hold Ministers to account. Cook's plans include limiting party influence over the composition of select committees which scrutinise Whitehall departments and have the power to summon ministers.

The US separation of power system is fundamentally different, the executive does not derive from Congress. The President is elected separately and appoints as his cabinet distinguished persons outside of Congress. Even when the President and the dominant majority in congress are of the same party, the President cannot count on an automatic legislative majority as the Congressman is significantly independent of party allegiance. Congress must be persuaded and convinced, even if that process may include, as it often does, the pork barrel. Nevertheless (and this is the high value of the system) the legislative result is a consensus reflective of the broad shades of opinion in the country.

It appears that many of the reforms made to the Guyana constitution resonate with ideas generated by the US system. The massive 500 page Final Report of the Oversight Committee on constitutional reform mentions, in several places, in explanation of particular constitutional amendments, that the objective is "minimising executive influence", as in the appointment of the Service Commissions. Again, with somewhat similar intent, the appointment by the President of certain key posts e.g. Chancellor of the Judiciary or Chief Justice is subject to agreement of the Leader of the Opposition. Moreover, the National Assembly is mandated to choose persons for appointment to the Service Commissions and the major Commissions for the Promotion and Enhancement of Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law namely Human Rights, Women and Gender Equality, Indigenous Peoples and the Rights of the Child. This is also the case with the Ethnic Relations Commission.

Now, the requirement for agreement or consultation in the case of major appointments are rather like the provisions in the US constitution (Article 2) which mandate that the Advice and Consent of the Senate must be sought before the US President can make appointments as Ministers, Ambassadors, Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court and certain other officers.

Clearly the intent of such constitutional reforms is to maintain the separateness and power of the legislature, the National Assembly.

On the matter of the specific difficulties with the sectoral scrutiny committees, (four in all in the broad areas of Natural Resources, Economic Services, Foreign Relations and Social Services) it has pointed out that these constitutional amendments have been subject to a long process through the all party Reform Commission, then through a Special Select Committee and finally the Oversight Committee on Constitutional Reform whose recommendations were adopted by the National Assembly and enacted into law, with the President assenting.

So why the current conflict? The legislation did not determine composition, how parties would be represented in terms of number of members. The Oversight Committee spoke of the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of these Sectoral Committees coming "from opposite sides of the House" which Bryn Pollard has pointed out is a case of imprecise drafting.

The governing party insists that ministers must be included in the membership of the committees. This does not appear to be the case in the British House of Commons, similar scrutiny committees have the right to summon ministers - as indicated in the already quoted news report.

The major opposition party for its part is demanding that Committee Membership should be equal as between governing party and opposition. On the other hand the governing party appears to be relying on the Standing Orders of Parliament which determine that the structure of Committees should reflect the composition of Parliament i.e. the party with the majority should have a similar majority on committees and hence inevitably hold the chairmanship. This is the practice in the House of Commons and in Congress.

Nevertheless in the spirit of reform it may be unwise to rely too heavily on such rules, especially as the work of these committees is ultimately reviewable and subject to debate and vote in the whole Assembly.

Bearing in mind the broad objectives of constitutional reform and as has been pointed out in a Sunday Stabroek editorial the unchanging demographic effects on the outcome of elections, it would be better to see the provision of the sectoral scrutiny Committees not in terms of party contests but in terms of the relationship between the executive (government) and Parliament.

The unitary system inherited from Britain in which the executive plays a dominant role in parliament has the capacity for the expeditious decision-making which is required where the state must play a major role in economic development. But it does not ordinarily tend to consensus.

On the other hand, a system in which parliament retains major power promotes consensus in national decision making and can be a powerful instrument for promoting the growth of a cohesive society.