Leaders must address basics of freedom and real democracy
-Commonwealth envoy Sir Paul Reeves
Stabroek News
September 26, 2003

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The challenge facing Guyana’s leaders is how to make a country where the young want to stay, where they see opportunity and where they can enjoy better standards of life in a larger freedom.

And to do this, Sir Paul Reeves, the Special Envoy of the Commonwealth Secretary-General, says that the country would be well-served if it modernises the political culture and the instruments of governance. He says that it is necessary to empower parliament as the supreme expression of the will of the people and concede to the executive, the political space it needs to exercise its authority.

He also urges support for the Jagdeo/Corbin dialogue given that nation-building is a long and unending journey that begins with working relationships that endure. “In national as in our daily lives, nothing remains fixed forever. Unity is a continuous process of discovery and enrichment. It takes determination”.

Sir Paul’s comments were made in a speech on Wednesday to the Rotary Club of Georgetown at its weekly lunch at Le Meridien Pegasus Hotel.

Sir Paul stressed that progress in a multi-ethnic society was achieved when differences and diversity were seen as sources of strength and inspiration rather than of division and distrust.

“I repeat that building trust is absolutely critical. It will require an abundance of patience, goodwill and understanding among the elected politicians and among all the citizens of Guyana. It will require the nurturing of spiritual and human values, which sustain people in need and help them to adapt to rapid change. It will require building on the already-considerable human and material resources available to this country.”

Sir Paul, a former Archbishop and Governor- General of New Zealand, said Guyana needed to institute a regime for the separation of powers as a fundamental constraint against the abuse of such power and invest in the Elections Commission the confidence, adequate resources and the authority and independence it needs.

He also called for the enactment of an effective Freedom of Information Act, which “enables the public to gain access to information about executive decisions.” According to Sir Paul, “Transparency is one of the cardinal virtues of good government.”

Commenting on the role of the parliament, Sir Paul contended that “the monitoring of government performance, is the responsibility of the legislature and in particular parliamentarians must hold the executive arm of government accountable for its actions. Beyond that the Auditor General has to ensure the financial accountability of the executive. However, independent oversight bodies can also be a check on government. Indeed, if the proper oversight bodies are not in place, the interlocked mechanism of democracy is threatened.”

He praised the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament, which “has remained a symbol of national prudence and shows the possibilities of good political collaboration.”

“I acknowledge too the foresight of the drafters of the revised constitution for building a strong oversight element into the sectoral committees of the parliament”

Sir Paul pointed out that in an age when electoral apathy and cynicism about politics were serious threats in many Commonwealth democracies, this (oversight) function was very important; oversight bodies act as safeguards against political disillusionment.

“The Commonwealth also recognises that for a democracy to be successful, it is not enough to have the right political institutions and the right balance of power between them. We also need institutions to be rooted in a shared democratic culture.”

He observed that the exercise of the right to vote on polling day is but one aspect of democracy and stressed that “democratic practices need to be at the heart of public life and shape every decision affecting the life of the community.”

As a result he said the Commonwealth had been running seminars on deepening democracy in its member countries with the aim of helping them to make democracy as real and as deep as possible. “The Commonwealth can still provide such assistance to Guyana in these areas and in close collaboration with other donor organisations.”

Sir Paul noted that the development and refinement of democratic governance was an on-going process for which a parliamentary committee on constitutional reform had been established. He suggested that a good start would be the publication of the revised Constitution.

He suggested also the strengthening of the process of consultation and consensus -building as well as finding innovative ways to better reflect the will of the society. “There are people and organisations in Guyana with expertise on such issues as health, education and the economy. Could they not be co-opted on the parliamentary committees? I would urge parliament to provide the criteria for such participation.”

With regards to the electoral system and the Elections Commission, Sir Paul noted the recommendation of the Commonwealth Observer Group to the March 2001 elections that urged the adoption of an electoral system that reflects the will of the people without fostering ethnic divisions in a winner-take-all system.

Equally important, he said, was that the regulatory and administrative mechanisms for conducting an election must meet the highest standards of independence and authority.