In the face of a court ruling that the National Assem-bly’s power is limited to either giving or withholding approval of the budget estimates, the opposition parties have signalled that for Budget 2014, they will not approve line items that do not have their support.
“I don’t think that the Chief Justice’s ruling is going to change anything for us,” APNU Leader David Granger told Stabroek News. While saying that acting Chief Justice Ian Chang erred in his ruling and that it was “an unwarranted intervention into the functions of the National Assembly,” Granger said that even if Justice Chang’s language is used, the opposition can “disapprove” entire line items instead of reducing them as happened during the 2012 and 2013 budgets.
He said that their policy is driven by the public interest and “we have the right to disapprove.” With Budget 2014 due to be presented soon, he said that they are going to fulfil their constitutional role and exercise that right.
On Wednesday, delivering his long-awaited final decision, Justice Chang declared that the National Assembly acted “unlawfully and unconstitutionally” by effecting cuts to the 2012 budget estimates, after finding that its power is limited to either giving or withholding approval. According to Justice Chang, while the Assembly may approve or not approve the Finance Minister’s estimates of expenditure, it has no power to change them by either reducing or increasing them. “The power to amend may involve the power to approve. But a power to approve does not imply a power to amend,” he wrote in his decision on a challenge to the cuts that was brought to the court by Attorney General Anil Nandlall.
The opposition parties have indicated their intention to appeal the case and signalled that some estimates could not be approv-ed in their entirety.
Leader of the AFC Khemraj Ramjattan’s position was similar to Granger’s. “In accordance with any proper construction of [Chief Justice] Chang’s ruling, since we cannot ‘reduce’ the individual estimate under the various line items, as we did in the 2012 Budget, we will proceed to ‘not approve’ line items we see fit,” he said.
Parliament Office has said that while Justice Chang’s ruling is to be respected, it remains subject to the right of appeal and it is for the National Assembly to determine and direct the way forward. Speaker of the House Raphael Trotman last year ruled that the National Assembly has the power to amend the budgetary allocations.
The Attorney General has said that until the ruling is set aside by another court, the ruling must be obeyed.
Granger told Stabroek News that the Chief Justice erred in his ruling. “We feel that the entire process was bizarre,” he said noting that the leader of the opposition did not have an opportunity to state his case. Justice Chang had struck out Granger and Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh as defendants in the case on the ground that they are parliamentarians and can’t be sued. This left Trotman as the sole defendant but Granger has moved to appeal Justice Chang’s decision to strike him out.
The validity of the preliminary ruling has been tested, Granger said while adding that it is APNU’s view that the National Assembly makes its own rules and decisions. “We hold the right not to approve the (line) item,” he said. “It is within our right to disapprove.”
Furthermore, Granger said that in order for the government to spend money in 2012 and 2013, an Appropriations Act had to be passed and the Act embodied the “so-called cuts”.
“The Bill embodied the actions which were taken by the National Assembly,” he asserted. “I think that the Chief Justice has it all wrong… the National Assembly approved the Bill which embodied the very cuts which the Chief Justice says we can’t make.”
The opposition leader emphasized that there were four major grounds of objection to the ruling. Firstly, he said, the process was flawed because an appeal is pending and it was inappropriate for the Chief Justice to proceed without the hearing of the appeal. Secondly, the Leader of the Opposition was denied representation and that was unjust and thirdly, Justice Chang’s decision constituted an unwarranted intrusion in the right of the National Assembly to regulate its own business.
The fourth reason was that the Appropriations Act is the final instrument authorizing the executive branch to spend public funds and the Appropria-tions Act embodies the so-called cuts, which indicates that the minister accepted the cuts before he brought the challenge, he said.
The opposition cannot be expected to sit on their hands, Granger said while noting that the situation can be worse for the executive since the opposition instead of reducing an estimate for an item, can disapprove the entire sum.
Meantime, Ramjattan said that the AFC’s parliamentarians will not be in defiance of any court ruling and the party will always respect the rule of law. “This does not mean that when we do as we will do in the 2014 Budget, we will not be carrying out our functions as duly elected representatives, with all due propriety and constitutionality,” he said.
“It must be appreciated that the decision of the learned Chief Justice – to put it succinctly – is that the majority in the National Assembly, more particularly, its Committee of Supply cannot reduce the Estimates. It can ‘approve’ or ‘not approve’ them. Now the Estimates is made up of a huge number of individual estimates, each properly line-itemed for an individual vote on each, respectively. That is why we take two to three weeks in the Committee of Supply to deal with each of them. In accordance with any proper construction of Chief Justice Chang’s ruling, since we cannot ‘reduce’ the individual estimate under the various line items, as we did in the 2012 Budget, we will proceed to ‘not approve’ line items we see fit,” he explained.
Ramjattan said this will meet the mark of being in accordance with the Chief Justice’s ruling. So instead of reducing to $1 like what was done for NCN and GINA, or reduce by millions certain other line-items, they will abide by the ruling and simply ‘not approve’ any estimate which is proposed for these agencies or certain other line items, he said.
The AFC leader referred to statements by Nandlall and Singh complaining about the opposition’s actions and said that this is what they have been doing all the time since 2012, “although the latter is on record acknowledging the Assembly’s right to reduce or cut estimates in line items and, consequentially, reduce or cut the overall budget.”
Ramjattan posited that Nandlall and Singh will want to argue that ‘not approving’ certain estimates in various line items in the 2014 Budget will mean that the opposition will be breaching the Chief Justice’s ruling because the final aggregate would effectually be a reduction. However, his response is that “this kind of aggregate reduction which comes through a process of ‘not approvals’ of estimates within line items – rather than cuts or reductions thereto – is exactly what the Chief Justice ruled we can do and that which will bring constitutionality to our exercise in the Assembly.”
The AFC leader further said that assuming it is argued by the officials that this approval or non-approval was directed to the whole budget only and not to each estimate, then if the opposition were to not approve of the entire 2014 budget – apart from the constitutional crisis that would lead to with public servants and even judges not getting their salaries – “the argument can be made that this is but a reduction to $0 from whatever was proposed in the 2014 budget.
“And reductions are unconstitutional. The logical conclusion would necessarily mean we could not even ‘not approve’, because that would mean a reduction,” he said.
“In this context then, I cannot see the Chief Justice ruling on ‘approval or not approval’ being only directed and applicable to the entire budget and not to each individual estimate under each line item. Therefore, our ‘not approving’ certain individual estimates in various line items in the 2014 Budget will not be violative of the High Court’s ruling,” Ramjattan said.
“It must be appreciated that this will be our approach, pending an appeal to the Court of Appeal, as we strongly believe that reductions or cuts to the Estimates, voted on by the majority in an Assembly of duly elected officials, are proper and constitutional. The Chief Justice, we feel, fell into major error in this ruling,” he said.