New Speaker of the National Assembly Raphael Trotman hopes to revitalize the National Assembly by bringing the proceedings and parliamentarians to the people and he believes that the new “unorthodox” configuration will foster cooperation since the parties will need each other to get things done.
An inclusive approach and respect is key and while there will be testing moments, the leaders in the House have Guyana’s interest at heart and will work together, Trotman said in an interview with Stabroek News on Friday. In his Hadfield Street office, a relaxed and clearly optimistic Trotman outlined his vision and emphasized that it will be developed in conjunction with his deputy, Deborah Backer.
“I have my own vision but, like I said, I’d like to develop it in conjunction with Mrs Backer’s vision as well, because even though she’s Deputy Speaker I see almost as if there’s going to be a kind of a co-chairing of the Assembly,” Trotman said. He explained that he wants his deputy to play a greater role and the focus should be “the us rather than the I.”
“I think that we, rather than I, should characterize the management of the affairs of this 10th Parliament,” the new Speaker said.
Having serving for over 13 years as a Member of Parliament—first on the PNCR benches then representing the AFC—Trotman was elected as Speaker of the National Assembly on Thursday. It was a historic first for an opposition member, made possibly by APNU and AFC combining to use their one-seat advantage over the PPP/C during the vote.
Trotman said he plans to introduce some innovations to the 10th Parliament that would see the Assembly being more independent as well as the training of Members of Parliament, with additional goals being to raise the profile of the institution and parliamentarians being more responsive to the needs of the people.
He recalled that since Guyana’s independence in 1966, the winning party has always had the Speaker’s chair. When the 1980 Constitution was introduced and the Executive Presidency created, the independence of Parliament was “defused,” Trotman said. “It was taken out of its proper alignment wherein the executive with its executive powers overshadowed the legislative branch of the state,” he added.
In a strict, legal sense of there being a separation of the powers, the executive, legislature and the judiciary, the way it was conducted in the past, the National Assembly was not sufficiently independent, Trotman said, while recalling his visits to other parliaments and his observations on how they functioned as an institution in their own right.
“I believe we’ve lost that and I can tell you that it is well known that my own view and I know that it is the view of Mrs Backer and most if not all members of the opposition… that we need to see the National Assembly realigned, brought back into what I like to call its rightful orbit as an independent but yet interconnected arm of the state working with the executive,” he said. In terms of the financial status of parliament office, Trotman noted that the parliamentary budget is presented by the government “so there’s no autonomy in that way where the parliament is a stand-alone, let’s say, the way [the Guyana Elections Commission] is also meant to be but it comes under the Office of the President, so you got to find a way to diminish that and hopefully to sever that link altogether.”
He noted that in the Needs Assessment conducted by Commonwealth Parliamentary Staff Advisor Sir Michael Davies in 2005, it was recommended that Parliament should have its own budget. He said that the opposition parties and interested members on the government side could address this by bringing a motion or legislation or through the tripartite dialogue that should commence soon.
Another thrust that Trotman would focus on is making Parliament more accessible and friendly to the public. “We must be more accessible, we must be more in touch with the people,” he said, while expressing sadness about the lack of interest by members of the public in the work of the Assembly and noting that, in the past, they had, for some reason, given off “the wrong aura.” He noted that the barricades around Public Buildings whenever the Assembly is in session disrupts activity in the area and also sends a message to the average members of the public that they are not welcome.
While acknowledging the security concerns, Trotman said that it should not be so intimidating that members of the public do not feel comfortable to come off the road to listen to a debate or meet an MP if they have a concern. “We have got to go back to servant leadership and not leadership being served by the people. The whole thing has to be turned on its head,” he said. “This is not just the job of the Speaker. This is the new thrust that we have to encourage. It’s not gonna come easily, some are going to resist it but parliament has to be more accessible and more friendly.”
In addition, Trotman would also like to see parliamentary delegations visiting the regions to hear the concerns of the people. He said this has not happened during his years in the Assembly though a few committees had gone out. “But why can’t a committee travel to North-West—and this would be a bipartisan committee—just to meet with people, hear their complaints and say, ‘we are from the parliament, we’ve come to hear from you. The person to my right may be AFC, the person to my left may be APNU and I am PPP but at the end of the day we represent you and we’d like to hear from you?’” he said. “These are not impossible innovations. It just needs somebody to say I am willing to go.”
This would raise the profile of the parliament because “the people’s view, and justifiably so, is that ‘this is a waste of time place. All they do is cuss and fight each other, waste taxpayers money but they don’t produce anything wholesome,’” Trotman said. “There’s a lot that happens that is beneficial to the nation but if the only thing that people see is the fighting and they don’t see that interface or you can’t reach and touch your Member of Parliament except every five years when there’s elections, well then something is wrong. So, I think we need to go back to some of those basic things of really reaching people and raising the profile of parliament,” he said.
The broadcasting of parliamentary sessions and the work of committees is also something the political parties have to work on, he noted.
Putting Guyana first
Meantime, Trotman expressed confidence that in spite of the new political configuration in the National Assembly, the parties would find common ground to work together. “I think we all realize that it cannot be done without cooperation because if you have a one member majority and one member falls sick, for example, the opposition can’t defeat a government’s bill on that day… and likewise the government can’t pass the bill and so there’s a potential for gridlock and the country will shut down and so the only way forward is through talking and I think that is what the people of Guyana did when they put us in there in this configuration,” he articulated.
“I am confident that we have turned a corner and we have begun to move away from… what I believe are the dark autocratic days and I believe that President [Donald] Ramotar can be a reasonable man if reason is placed before him because I’ve been in dialogue with him. I’ve observed him in parliament for a number of years and apart from that I was in dialogue when the PNC and the PPP were in dialogue after the 1997 elections for three years we dialogued together,” Trotman said. “If faced with reason he can act and think rationally and display reasonableness,” he added.
“Likewise I have known Mr David Granger for a number of years and I believe that he is at heart and soul a patriot and will do what is right in the interest of the nation and so he is not your dyed-in-the-wool politician who believes in putting self first, he will put country first because that was what he was trained to do,” Trotman declared.
“With that combination and then add to that Mr [Khemraj] Ramjattan who is passionate about anti-corruption, about justice, about rights, I think we have a very good mix. It could become a combustible mix and it will from time to time, I believe, come close to exploding but I know that those three men and those who they lead will put Guyana first,” he stated.
The new Speaker said that undoubtedly there will be testing moments but it is out of these that growth will be seen. He stressed that respect is very important. “No one has a commanding majority and that is a humbling posture to be in because whatever thoughts you may have entertained about running amok or wild, you can’t because what you do today will hurt you tomorrow or help you so I am excited about the prospects for cooperation,” he said.