There has been no move by the National Assembly’s Committee of Appointments to begin the process of reconstituting the defunct Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) despite being urged to do so by Speaker of the National Assembly, Raphael Trotman and the PPP.
Leader of the Alliance for Change (AFC) Khemraj Ramjattan says he too believes that the issue of the appointment of the commissioners for the ERC should be dealt with as a matter of urgency. However, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) leader, David Granger says that the matter is “up in the air”.
PPP Chief Whip, Gail Teixeira has laid the blame for the inaction on the opposition and said that almost a year into the 10th Parliament, the Committee of Appointments has not met except to elect the chairperson, Dr George Norton. Norton could not be contacted for comment yesterday.
Article 212A of the Constitution of Guyana provides for an Ethnic Relations Commission and among its various functions is listed, “Provide for equality of opportunity between persons of different ethnic groups and to promote harmony and good relations between such persons; Promote the elimination of all forms of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity; Discourage and prohibit persons, institutions, political parties and associates from indulging in, advocating or promoting discriminatory practices on the ground of ethnicity.”
The composition of the ERC has been enveloped in controversy since 2007 after the life of the ERC commissioners came to an end on August 31 of that year, but was extended by then president Bharrat Jagdeo who on September 6, 2007 announced the reappointment of the commissioners until consensus could be reached in Parliament for consulting on new appointments. The then main opposition PNCR had argued that the extension of the appointments was unconstitutional. Another area of disagreement was the inclusion of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) among the entities that can nominate persons to the commission via a consensual mechanism determined by the National Assembly.
But since the November 2011 elections, there have been no moves to have the ERC reconstituted even although the opposition has dominated the committees of the House.
In April, the opposition had slashed over $20 billion from the budget including the allocation for the ERC, and had cited a lack of transparency and accountability in the explanation for the cuts. The government later moved to restore the funds through an action in the High Court. Although finding that the National Assembly did not have the power to cut the budget, acting Chief Justice Ian Chang, in an interim ruling, said the court could not restore the funds, except for allocations to the ERC to perform its constitutional duties. Following the ruling, in August when the government returned to the House seeking approval for the funding, the combined opposition which holds a one-seat majority in the National Assembly again voted down the allocation.
Trotman has written to Norton urging him to “fulfil your constitutional duty to ensure that this vitally necessary and constitutionally mandated Commission is constituted as a matter of urgency.”
Trotman’s letter was prompted by one from ERC Commissioner John Willems who in his correspondence pointed out that the commission as currently constituted by Parliament calls for seven commissioners with seven alternatives. In his August 14 letter to Trotman, which was seen by Stabroek News, Willems noted that for the ERC to be properly constituted requires five commissioners with three necessary for a quorum. “Currently, there are only two of the original commissioners or substitute commissioners available to direct the commission; hence there is an insufficiency of commissioners to form a quorum. This results in the commission having no authority to review the work being done, approve, and/or seek financing of new programmes, hear complaints or make judgments based on evidence gathered by the staff, nor even meet as a commission,” Willems said in his letter to Trotman.
“The secretariat presently is carrying out its routine duties in the area of public education and awareness, receiving complaints and monitoring the media,” he added.
Willems said that in order for the ERC to be fully functional, it is necessary for parliament to act. “My understanding is that the responsibility would be for the attention of the ‘Parliamentary Committee of Appointments’ as this is the committee which deals with such matters,” he wrote. He said that there is a principle involved as to whether Parliament is bound by the Constitution and pointed out that the matter has been pending for five years. “I know of no recent activity being taken to make the commission complete. Please understand that it normally takes about two months for the constituents to nominate their choices for the post of commissioner, hence it seems unlikely that the new commissioners will be sworn in this year,” he added.
In his response to Willems, the Speaker undertook to do everything in his authority to ensure that this was addressed as a matter of priority.
Last month, Trotman wrote to Norton urging him to act. “It is public knowledge that this commission has been the subject of much public scrutiny and comment, political discourse, and even legal action; all of which have combined, in my humble opinion to affect its ability to function and lowered its credibility in the estimation of the public. I believe that the task is yours to commence the process of re-establishing this commission in such a manner that it receives the acceptance and support of the public and the important stakeholders within our society. The nation needs a commission, I daresay that is not seen as a political horse, and one that has a renewed vision and mandate,” Trotman wrote.
In his letter, Trotman told Norton that he had his support and that of Parliament Office to assist in completing the task.
When contacted on the issue yesterday Teixeira said that the PPP has repeatedly raised the fact that the Committee of Appointments is not meeting. “It has constitutional responsibility,” she stressed. She said that the ERC issue cannot be dealt with unless the committee deals with it. “The committee has to lead on that and the committee has to meet,” the PPP Chief Whip said. “We raised it over and over that the committees aren’t meeting, particularly this one.”
Given the lack of movement on the issue, Teixeira said that the opposition seems not to want the ERC constituted. “Their action seems to speak in that direction,” she asserted. “They don’t seem to have an appetite to get this matter resolved.”
Teixeira said that in 2007, the opposition was fearful that Bishop Juan Edghill would have been nominated. Edghill is now the junior finance minister, she noted. “What’s holding them up now,” she asked; “What’s the problem now?”
She also recalled the objection to the IRO and emphasised that it is a “legitimate organisation.” She said that the PPP is anxious to set the commission in motion and noted that the governing party has also been attending meetings of other committees. Teixeira said that during her tenure as chairperson of the Appointments Committee in the Ninth Parliament, 90% of the work they were supposed to do was completed. “Why is the chairman, Dr George Norton, not convening a meeting of this committee,” Teixeira asked, adding that by its actions such as the budget cuts and the absence of meetings, the opposition seems not to want to move forward on the issue.
Meantime, when contacted, Granger briefly said that the ball is up in the air. “It hasn’t been discussed definitively and we have come to no conclusion,” he said.
Ramjattan, meanwhile, told Stabroek News that the AFC wants to see the Appointments Committee carry out its work and said that there should be a little more urgency in the appointments. “The AFC will want to perform its obligations under the Constitution and must do that,” he said.
The AFC leader emphasized that the issues of the appointment of the commissioners and the budget for the ERC are separate, and the AFC will continue to keep an eagle eye on budgetary issues to ensure proper and efficient financial procedures.