We should guard against confusing our Westminster-type parliamentary possibilities with the type of reforms that are required if the ethnic divide is to ease

The English political essayist and critic Walter Bagot (1826-77) claimed that: “A parliament is nothing less than a big meeting of more or less idle people.” This is of course an exaggeration, but it nevertheless focuses our attention on the perception of many people that parliament is nothing more than a “talk shop.” This view is also wrong, but it largely results from the expectations we have of parliament.

On November 6, 2005, Stabroek News published a letter from me (‘These three reports can help to improve our democratic arrangements’) in which I argued that the range of the recommendations contained in three reports (Needs Assessment of the Guyana National Assembly (NAGNA) 2005; Addendum to NAGNA 2005 and the Advisory Papers on NAGNA 2005) that were then still before the National Assembly could significantly improve our democratic arrangements.  Since then, although there is still much to do, many of the recommendations have been implemented, so I agree with those who laud our parliament, qua parliament, as being relatively progressive and offering more participatory opportunities (‘Democratic parliamentary governance has been developing over the years’ SN 17.3.09; ‘Establishment of parliament committees will enhance peace and harmony’ KN 17.3.09).

But in the same letter I also stated that, [what] we need to note is that most parliaments are intended to underpin/facilitate the executive; this is so of both the American and the British systems… The fact that in the American case there is a clear, physical, separation while in the British the fortunes of the opposition party are closely linked to its success in parliament, only gives the facilitations different complexions.

“Peter Dorey (Policy Making in Britain 2005) made the important point: “The relatively high degree of party cohesion, especially in the House of Commons, means that once public policy is presented to Parliament there are likely to be few significant changes to it.” Indeed, Philip North (Does Parliament Matter, 1996), one of Britain’s leading academics on parliament and now himself an MP, claimed that parliament is a “policy-modifying” rather than a “policy-making” body. Thus in my view, we will proceed with much more speed, if we all come to an agreement about the role and limits of the Westminster type parliament.

“It is not, per se, a place for executive power-sharing of any sort. Indeed, such an attempt may well corrupt the very separation of powers that we seek. Those who are bent on executive power sharing must seek it differently.”

No wonder then that Kaieteur News has recently published contributions from two prominent and knowledgeable bodies stating, “A new era of political will and strong, visionary leadership is required to realize change and reverse the economic and social stagnation evident in a divided Guyana,” (‘UN expert sees deepening ethnic polarization’ KN 19.3.09, and “The fundamental dysfunction of Guyana’s democracy – ethnic political mobilization – will be slow to change, but must be addressed if Guyana is to realize its great potential” (‘USAID examines democracy, governance in Guyana’ KN 19.3.09)

There is nothing new about the above statements in relation to the Guyanese polity, and the case for more fundamental reforms is all but unassailable.  The major point here is that we need to guard against confusing our Westminster-type parliamentary possibilities with the type of reforms that are required if the ethnic divide is to ease and Guyana is to realise its great potential.

Yours faithfully,
Henry B Jeffrey

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