Fourteen months of political stalemate ended yesterday with the PNCR returning to Parliament underpinned by a historic encounter between President Bharrat Jagdeo and PNCR leader, Robert Corbin
made possible by an all-night meeting of their representatives.
The two leaders approved the composition of several key parliamentary committees yesterday morning during a meeting at the Office of the President. The PNCR withdrew from Parliament last year charging that the government had not implemented decisions flowing from the dialogue between Jagdeo and the late PNCR Leader Desmond Hoyte.
Observers say the agreements reached by the two should transform the way parliamentary business is conducted and usher in an era of legislative power sharing and parliamentary activism. The meeting lasted for more than an hour and pushed back the 10 am start of the swearing in ceremony for the members of the Ethnic Relations Com-mission.
President Jagdeo and Corbin also agreed on the terms of reference for an inquiry into the police force, which will be conducted by the Disciplined Forces Commission and the strengthening of the Parliament Office to service all the parliamentary committees and the National Assembly.
Yesterday’s meeting also paved the way for Corbin’s “constructive” participation at the swearing in ceremony for nine of the fourteen members and substitute members of the Ethnic Relations Commission. (See other story on centre pages.)
The agreements also cleared the way for Corbin to acquiesce to be elected Leader of the Opposition and for his party to return to the National Assembly, which its parliamentarians did at yesterday’s sitting.
The two leaders are to meet again on Monday to continue their discussions on the other matters on their agenda which include issues such as the implementation of decisions taken by the joint committees on land and house lot distribution; the end of government’s radio monopoly, local government, the bauxite industry, and border and national security. These decisions were taken during the dialogue between President Jagdeo and Hoyte which broke up in March 2002.
Jagdeo and Corbin are also expected to discuss the provision of resources to enable the twenty-five regional parliamentarians to service their constituencies more efficiently.
Yesterday’s meeting followed months of negotiations ever since Corbin accepted Jagdeo’s invitation issued within an hour of Corbin’s February 1 election as PNCR leader.
With Corbin’s acceptance of the President’s invitation, his representative, PNCR Chief Whip, Lance Carberry met with Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Reepu Daman Persaud, the President’s emissary, on February 11 and 25 and March 3 and 11. Because of the slow progress being made, on March 21, President Jagdeo suggested an expansion of the number of representatives on each side settling the arrangements. Thereafter, at meetings on April 4, 14, and 25, Ministers Gail Teixeira and Dr Henry Jeffrey and Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr Roger Luncheon joined Persaud in the discussions with Carberry.
The breakthrough came in the negotiations that followed a hitch at their meeting on Wednesday because of the government’s need to benefit from the comments of the Police Force on the terms of reference of the inquiry into the operations of the Police Force.
After receiving the comments of the Police Force, a series of telephone conversations between President Jagdeo, Corbin and their representatives preceded a marathon seven-hour meeting at the Office of the President that ended at 2 am yesterday morning. The participants at that meeting were Education Minister, Dr Henry Jeffrey, Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr Roger Luncheon and PNCR Chief Whip Carberry.
With the agreement reached on the parliamentary issues paving the way for the PNCR parliamentarians to resume their seats in the National Assembly after nearly fourteen months, the parliamentary opposition unanimously elected Corbin as Leader of the Opposition. Corbin had refused to be elected to the position until there was work for him to do as Leader of the Opposition.
Corbin’s election took place at a meeting convened and chaired by Speaker Ramkarran shortly before yesterday’s sitting of the National Assembly. PNCR backbencher Volda Lawrence proposed Corbin’s candidacy, which was seconded by PNCR frontbencher and Chairman of the party’s Reform section, Stanley Ming. There were no other nominations but out of abundant caution, the Speaker called for a show of hands and all the members of the parliamentary opposition voted for Corbin including the two members of GAP/WPA and ROAR’s lone parliamentarian, Ravi Dev.
The seven new parliamentary Standing Committees are: the Parliamentary Management Committee which will be chaired by the Speaker of the National Assembly, who will have no vote, and on which the government and opposition will be equally represented; the sector committees on natural resources, social services, foreign affairs and economic services, on which the government will have four members on each committee and the opposition three with provision for each side naming an alternate to each committee; the eleven-member Committee on Constitutional Reform and the Appointments Committee. On the last two committees the government will have six members and the opposition five.
The National Assembly, following a report from its Committee of Selection, has already approved the nominations to the Parliamentary Management Committee and the Committees on Constitutional Reform and Appointments.
The members of the Parliamentary Management Committee are Ministers Persaud, Dr Jeffrey, Manzoor Nadir and Carolyn Rodrigues and parliamentarians Feroze Mohamed, Clarissa Riehl, Carberry, Amna Ally, Sheila Holder and Ravi Dev.
The establishment of this committee was a recommendation of the St Lucia Statement signed on July 2, 1998 by then President, Janet Jagan and then Leader of the Opposition, Desmond Hoyte, and it was a condition for the PNCR taking up its seats in the National Assembly following the December 15, 1997 elections.
The members of the Committee on Constitutional Reform are Ministers Persaud, Clement Rohee, Ronald Gajraj, Doodnauth Singh SC, Dr Leslie Ramsammy, and parliamentarians Bernard De Santos, Deborah Backer, Deryck Bernard, Raphael Trotman, Vincent Alexander and Dev. This committee as well as the sector committees and the committee on appointments are creations of the amendments to the constitution based on the recommendations of the Constitution Reform Commission and the Parliamentary Oversight Committee on Constitutional Reform.
Speaker Ramkarran, then a backbencher, chaired the Constitution Reform Commission and the Oversight Committee was chaired by then Information Minister, Moses Nagamootoo.
Before it adjourned to Monday to allow members to attend the funeral of Senior Counsel Donald Robinson, the National Assembly unanimously approved the appointment and terms of reference of the Parliamentary Management Committee on a motion moved by Teixeira and seconded by Corbin. On Monday it will also resume consideration of the motion moved by Teixeira and seconded by Carberry seeking approval of the appointment and functions of the Appointments Committee.
Jagdeo and Corbin have also agreed to strengthen the capacity of the Parliament Office to service all of the committees and the National Assembly as a whole.
They also agreed on the appointment and arrangements for the functioning of the Ethnic Relations Commission. This committee should have been in place before the March 19, 2001 elections as agreed in the July 2, 1998 St Lucia Statement signed by then President Janet Jagan and Corbin’s predecessor, the late Desmond Hoyte.
Another recommendation the two leaders signed off on was the terms of Reference of the Disciplined Services Commission which include an inquiry into the operations of the Guyana Police Force as well as an amendment to Article 197A(5) of the constitution to provide the commission with the authority and powers to conduct inquiries.
In a brief statement issued after their participation in the swearing in of the members of the Ethnic Relations Commission, both Jagdeo and Corbin praised the efforts of their representatives, which had paved the way for the meeting. Corbin also thanked the organisations that he consulted with for their co-operation in helping him to prepare for his engagement with President Jagdeo, which he said “has been a long time in coming”.