Parliamentary Management Committee Editorial
Stabroek News
May 5, 2002

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While the bandits go rampaging around George-town and its environs, other issues critical to the future of the country are being shunted into the background. For some time now the Government and the Opposition have been at loggerheads over the Parliamentary sectoral committees as well as the Parliamentary Management Committee (PMC). Where the latter is concerned, Dr Roger Luncheon told the media last week that any idea that the PNC/R would enjoy a power of veto in a committee vested with authority to summon Parliament and decide on its agenda was unacceptable to the administration. The Cabinet Secretary was reported as saying that his party's contention was that Standing Orders, custom and practice dictated the composition and membership of Parliamentary bodies.

Dr Luncheon was less than accurate in his representation of the opposition's proposal with regard to the PMC. That proposal is that the Government should have five seats on the ten-member body, the PNC/R three, the GAP/WPA one and ROAR one. There is no question, therefore, of the PNC/R being able to exercise a "veto." Furthermore, the draft motion for the establishment of a PMC which has been put forward by the PNC/R says only with regard to its powers that the PMC shall "consider and decide on matters relating to: The agenda and other business of the Assembly; and Such other matters which the Assembly may refer to it or which the Committee itself may wish to consider."

Exactly where Dr Luncheon acquired the notion that the committee would be in a position to ignore the Standing Orders or prevent the summoning of Parliament, therefore, is something of a mystery. Even in the event of a deadlock on the PMC as currently conceived, there would be nothing to prevent the Government from convening Parliament in order to bring legislation, and then using its majority to get that legislation passed. The Catholic Standard, for example, this week quoted one member of the PNC/R executive as saying: "How can the PMC prevent the Parliament from meeting or government bills from being brought before Parliament when the standing orders clearly state how these bills have to be drawn and what is to take priority?"

Both before and during the constitutional discussions, the two major parties indicated their opposition to any kind of power sharing arrangement. However, the Government committed itself to "inclusiveness," and the PNC/R focused on changes to the Parliamentary modus operandi which would reflect that spirit of inclusiveness. The party's argument - which had undoubted merit - was that the National Assembly met but infrequently, and then only when the Government wanted to bring a bill to the House. Opposition motions and questions simply could not find their way onto the order paper, and the Government had failed to institute 'members' day,' when opposition (or other members) could bring legislation and/or have questions answered and motions debated. In other words, far from being the democratic forum it should be, Parliament was little more than a rubber stamp. The PMC, of which all the parliamentary parties were in favour, was intended to address these problems, and to introduce a more structured and a more equitable approach to the management of parliamentary business.

The constitutional reform process and another election later, things have not changed. Parliament rarely meets, and opposition concerns are bypassed in the same way they always have been. On those occasions when the National Assembly is in session, it operates almost like a formal body, with what often sound like set speeches bouncing off the moulded Castellani ceiling and into the microphones of the bored media personnel below; little true debate as far as anyone can determine, goes on within its portals. There is no equivalent, for example, of Prime Minister's question time, where Britain's chief minister has to face a grilling from the opposition, and sometimes from his or her own backbenchers as well. If Government ministers have to be held accountable to the people anywhere, then surely it must be in Parliament in the first instance.

If the PPP/C insists on retaining an overall majority on the PMC, then the party opens itself to the accusation that it doesn't intend anything to change. And if it doesn't intend anything to change, then it doesn't want a more vibrant Parliament, and all the rhetoric notwithstanding, it doesn't want any true inclusiveness. While it is true that sooner or later there is likely to be deadlock on the PMC, that is not an argument for having a 6-4 arrangement. It does not help the situation that the PPP/C sees the only solution to possible disagreement with the opposition (in this case, the combined opposition) as being the ability to by-pass it. They have to be able to work through differences to arrive at consensus, or we will never be able to make democracy work.

The governing party gives the appearance of fearing to surrender control at any level, even if, as in this case, it has overall control at a higher level. Modern societies cannot run efficiently if governments dominate everything. Democracy is a complex structure, and it needs strong and in many instances, independent, institutions in order to function effectively. In a situation like ours, it is absolutely essential that the opposition should be able to address the Government within the context of the National Assembly rather than via the megaphone method of press briefings and statements which leave no room for true negotiation.