Bulkan earns fiery baptism as new front bencher

– as bill passed to postpone local gov’t polls

APNU’s newest front bencher, Shadow Local Government Minister Ronald Bulkan received a blistering baptism in the National Assembly last evening as he gave his presentation on the Local Authorities (Elections) (Amendment) Bill 2014, which seeks to postpone local government elections to December 1st 2014, or a date before.

Bulkan was the second MP, following Minister within the Ministry of Local Government Norman Whittaker, to debate on the bill brought to the house by former minister Ganga Persaud.

During his presentation, House Speaker Raphael Trotman sought to rescue Bulkan from a level of ruckus not observed in the house for several sittings for some time, but to no avail. And despite the wave of heckling from the PPP/C benches, a resolute Bulkan marched through

Ronald Bulkan
Ronald Bulkan

his presentation, for the most part.

PPP/C MP and Housing Minister Irfaan Ali was one of the most animated contributors to the heckling, grinning as he hurled comments at Bulkan. At one point it seemed that the barrage of heckling was too much for Bulkan, who stopped his presentation for several seconds, seemingly waiting for a moment of calm to recommence.

Noting what seemed like frustration in Bulkan’s demeanor, Trotman commented on the fiery atmosphere in which his first presentation as a front bencher was being made and expressed certainty that Bulkan came prepared for same.

Bulkan’s presentation was primarily in response to Whittaker’s statements during the debate on the bill.  Responding to speculation that the government was intentionally delaying the holding of the local government elections, Whittaker said government has nothing to gain from stopping local government elections from taking place. He further argued that the PPP/C is confident of success at such elections. He said government was so confident that it was hoping to have said elections last year.

This was not possible though, he went on, since the legislation passed in 2009 – the Local Authorities (Elections) (Amendment) Act – required extensive public education programmes and other capacity-building provisions to prepare local government officials and Guyanese citizens for the process under which the next local government election is to be held.

Under the system ushered in with the 2009 legislation, individuals, groups and political parties will be able to contest local government offices in Neighbourhood Democratic Councils (NDCs) and the various municipalities. Also, the electoral system under which local government elections will take place, whenever they do, will be a symbiosis of the Proportional Representation (PR) and First Past the Post (FFP) systems.

Whittaker said that there is a lot of work still to be done, and warned that moving ahead without thoroughly preparing will be a wasteful investment. He said that as long as he holds his portfolio he will not make a misguided decision.

Whittaker confessed that while there has been some amount of progress in this regard, it was not as much as desired.

Further, he said, claims that the four local government bills passed last year have to be implemented before the holding of local government elections were false. He said that while the passing of the bills will add to the reformation of the local government landscape, the bill needed to hold such elections was passed since 2009.

Four bills – once touted as pertinent to local government reform and local government elections by extension – were passed last year, three of which the President has assent to. The fourth bill was rejected on the grounds that some of its provisions are unconstitutional. Additionally, the three bills which have been given the president’s assent are yet to be implemented.

In the light of the aforementioned considerations Whittaker called on the opposition to pass the bill to postpone the elections, to which the APNU Chief Whip responded “call on yuhself”.

Bulkan rebuffed Whittaker’s “insufficient” explanations and sought to justify his proposal that local government should be held by or before August 1, 2014 as opposed to by or before December 1, 2014.

Noting Whittaker’s admittance that the needed legislation was passed since 2009, Bulkhan asked why the government, after four years, has been unable to finish whatever preparations are needed. “I don’t know how much more time the minister and the government feel is needed for voter education… certainly not another 17 years,” Bulkan said, alluding to the fact that such elections have not been held since 1994.

Bringing a bill requesting the further postponement of local government elections is tantamount to an assault on Guyanese citizens and an assault to local government elections, Bulkan charged, adding that the bill is nothing more than legal cover for denying Guyana local government elections for the 17th time in 17 years.

And while the government continues to delay the constitutionally required local government elections, Bulkan continued, it has proceeded to uproot democratically established NDCs, replacing them with government appointed Interim Management Councils (IMCs). He then referred to the former local government minister’s appointment of Carol Sooba as Town Clerk of the Georgetown municipality, but was cautioned by the Speaker as that matter is currently before the courts.

On the issue of the installation of IMCs, Whittaker said that they have only been installed because the citizens in the communities in question have expressed a lack of confidence in the bodies. Even after the expression of diminished confidence, Whittaker explained, IMCs were only installed following investigations into deficient NDCs.

In spite of Whittaker’s explanations though, Bulkan, spurred on by this opposition colleagues, and heckled by those on the other side, maintained that government continues to intentionally stall elections while interfering with the existing local government architecture. As for the government’s commitment to working towards the aforementioned elections, Bulkan said, “APNU says show us the elections… APNU says actions speak louder than words,” words which inspired heavy table pounding by APNU and Alliance for Change (AFC) members.

AFC MP Veersammy Ramayya, continuing the opposition’s charge during his presentation, suggested that at the government’s current pace Guyana was likely to see another general election before local government elections, and therefore underscored the need for the amendments proposed by Bulkan.

But as the opposition members continued to attack the government’s failure to hold local government elections for a protracted period of time, government MPs were relentless in their support of the government’s positions.

According to Legal Affairs Minister Anil Nandlall, an additional reason for the postponement of local government elections is because the Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom) is not prepared to facilitate such elections. The minister’s arguments though, contradict statements that have been made by Gecom’s officers.

Last year, Gecom officials had told the public that local government elections can be held within six months of receiving the needed instructions from the local government minister. The former local government minister, when asked last year when he planned to make the call for local government elections, had said that he was waiting for the appropriate time.

With Persaud no longer holding the Local Government Ministry portfolio, Whittaker now bears the responsibility of calling on Gecom to set local government elections in motion. Recognising the control Whittaker holds in this regard, APNU MP Basil Williams encouraged him to give effect to the local government bills passed last year, and call on Gecom to set local government elections in motion.

Targeting Nandlall’s arguments, Williams declared that the Legal Affairs Minister has no jurisdiction over Gecom and therefore has no authority to pronounce on its readiness for its responsibilities.

Taking his presentation a step further, he said that the opposition will not vote for a bill which would see local government elections postponed for another year. He continued that the legislation brought by the government would only receive the opposition’s support if it is amended as proposed by Bulkan. Ultimately, the combined opposition successfully inserted Bulkan’s proposals, and passed the bill as amended, amidst the government’s registered opposition.

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