We need to change our political behaviour

Accountability Watch

There is a strong positive correlation between democracy, good governance and accountability. Democracy facilitates accountability, which in turn facilitates development. A lack of democracy almost inevitably leads to a lack of accountability, which in turn impacts negatively on development.
Extract from “Improving public accountability: The Guyana experience 1985-2007”

Today is the last day of the year, and within hours, we begin our journey into the New Year. Traditionally, as individual citizens, we make resolutions, for example, to abstain from alcohol or smoking, to be kinder and nicer to others, and to work harder to achieve our goals in life. We also reflect on our past mistakes and resolve not to repeat them.

Similarly, as a nation, it is time to take stock of where we are, where we would like to be, given our vast resources and potential, and the extent to which the next twelve months will bring us closer to the goals we set ourselves.

Today, I have decided to take a break from my regular writings to reflect on our journey as a nation in the coming year.

Experience over the last twelve months
Over the last year twelve months, we have seen a significant degree of animosity among some of our politicians. This animosity sprung directly from the results of our last general elections which gave the ruling party the mandate to form the Government and hence to be in charge of the Executive Branch. The combined Opposition, by a slim majority, won control over the Legislative Branch. This “new dispensation” is unprecedented in history of post-Independence Guyana, and in the words of the Minister of Finance, we are now in unchartered waters. While this might be so for Guyana, the current political landscape is no different from that of the United States where the Democrats hold the Presidency while the Republicans control the House of Representatives. A similar situation existed in Canada where Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in his previous term, headed a minority government.

Although it might not have been the intention of the individual Guyanese voter, the overall results of the elections impose upon us a state of affairs where a significant measure of checks and balances is now in place in our system of government. The Executive Branch no longer controls the Legislative Branch which not only makes laws but also monitors and controls expenditure through the budget process and ex post evaluations by the Audit Office. There therefore needs to be a high degree of cooperation from both sides of the House to ensure the smooth and uninterrupted management of the affairs of the State.

The United States and Canada are able to move forward because at crucial times their elected officials put aside their political differences and in the spirit of goodwill and compromise, work toward the furtherance of the broader interest. We must follow their example. As I write, the outcome of the issue of the “fiscal cliff” in the United States is uncertain but negotiations between President Obama and the other political leaders, including House Speaker, John Boehner, continue in hopes of finding a compromise solution. The fiscal cliff is a series of spending cuts and steep taxes that will come into effect at the beginning of the New Year unless a deal is reached. This deadline was agreed upon in 2011 to force the President and Congress to agree on ways to save money over the next ten years.

At the very first sitting of our National Assembly in February of this year and during the budget debates that followed, I personally witnessed our Parliamentarians at work to attend to the business of the nation. The majority of them, including the leaders, took their responsibilities seriously and conducted themselves well. The atmosphere was, however, tense. Suspicion and a lack of trust appeared to have prevailed, as both sides of the House stuck to their guns in terms of what they wanted.
What was most distressing, however, was the extent of hostility displayed by some Parliamentarians towards their counterparts on the other side.

The debates degenerated into character assassinations and their full share of heckling and booing. I saw some of our politicians of long standing being insulted and treated with arrogance by our junior politicians for making innocent mistakes such as reference to the incorrect section in a particular legislation or for not carefully studying the budget documents before requesting clarifications. It was one of the most unfortunate spectacles that I have witnessed in my many years of attending and listening to the debates in the National Assembly.

The current situation admittedly is a very delicate one and requires maturity on the part of all concerned. The partisan politics, to which we have been accustomed, need to be set aside when considering matters of national importance. There should be a spirit of goodwill, compromise, and a genuine and sincere effort to find solutions to resolve the problems facing our nation.

The people have spoken and their collective will must prevail. We must practice democracy every day of our lives, and not one day in every five years. If we are to cherish and protect our democratic values, it behooves us to respect that will and to try the utmost to find common ground. In this way, our country can move forward in terms of improving the quality of the lives of our citizens. The failure to do so, is likely to impact adversely on our wellbeing as a nation.

Prospects for the 2013 budget
Very soon, the Minister of Finance will present the Government’s Budget for 2013 to the National Assembly for consideration, debate and approval.  We have made mistakes in respect of the 2012 budget, but we should endeavour not to repeat them. Specifically, we must cease harbouring the belief that whatever is presented must be approved without modifications. The only exception relates to expenditures that are a direct charge upon the Consolidated Fund. Otherwise, the debates are a waste of time as well as taxpayers’ money.

The National Assembly should not be considered a rubber stamp for sanctioning the actions of the Executive without first satisfying itself that such actions are in order and in the best interest of the country; and that there is due regard to economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the utilization of State resources. Rather, the outcome of a full and healthy debate on the various issues should be evaluated, and where there is merit, it is not belittling to make the necessary adjustments. Where Parliament decides otherwise on particular items of expenditure, there should also be no circumvention of its authority through recourse to the Contingencies Fund, as this may very well constitute an act of illegality.

Given the present configuration of the National Assembly, the Executive must engage in the most meaningful way the Opposition political parties in pre-budget talks to listen to their views, and use its best endeavours to accommodate those views in the budget.  Only in this way, will there be the prospects of a smooth passage of the budget. The Minister of Finance should abandon any thought that it is his prerogative to present a budget and for the National Assembly to approve or reject it. Commonsense will dictate that such an approach will be doomed to failure, as the 2012 experience has shown.

New Year’s wish list
There are a number of changes many Guyanese would like to see in our political landscape. First, our politics of confrontation must be replaced by one of mutual respect, dialogue and compromise. Arrogance, insults, ridicule and character assassinations have no place in our democratic system of government. We must cease considering people of different political persuasions as our enemies and display respect for each other’s political beliefs.

Second, we must have the courage to take into the political arena whatever we sincerely and conscientiously believe in, whether professionally or otherwise. We must cease defending the indefensible; speak out against wrongdoing and inappropriate behaviour by our colleagues of the same political orientation; and stop “circling the wagons” in the midst of criticisms, however well founded they may be.

We must be accommodative of the views of independent minded persons as well as of civil society organizations, who have the best interest at heart but who may be justifiably critical of some of our actions. After all, they too have an interest in ensuring that our country is managed properly and that those in charge adhere to the laws and the norms of society. We should stop labeling them “anti-government” and considering them “enemies of the State”. No Executive should harbour the belief that it has the monopoly over the principles and practices of sound public management. It is fair to state that a society that encourages healthy criticisms and responds to them positively, will achieve broad progress. A society, however, that stifles such criticisms becomes stagnated, and progress will remain illusive.

Finally, we would like the President to rise above the political fray. After all, he is the President of the entire nation. He should therefore consider himself the adjudicator when differences between the Executive and the Legislature on matters of national importance cannot be reconciled. Around 1993, former President Cheddi Jagan resolved, with the greatest degree of wisdom, humility and amicability, a disagreement between the then Minister of Finance and me on the extent of the Auditor General’s mandate. He summoned us, and when he entered the room, his only words on the matter were, “When I was Opposition Leader, I always wondered why it was that the Auditor General was not involved in the audit of public corporations. As a matter of policy, we would like him to do so, and if the Law does not provide for this, we must change the Law.” It was the shortest meeting that I have ever attended.  And, in his maiden presentation in the National Assembly, former President Bharrat Jagdeo, then the Junior Minister of Finance, successfully piloted the proposed bill to amend the law.
I wish all Guyanese a rewarding and successful 2013.


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