A refreshing change in Parliament

It was the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke who said: “Those who have been once intoxicated with power, and have derived any kind of emolument from it, even though but for one year, never can willingly abandon it. They may be distressed in the midst of all their power; but they will never look to anything but power for their relief.“

That one quote captures succinctly the mindset of the PPP/C and its defiance in the wake of the novel configuration of the 10th Parliament. For much of its 20 year tenure and particularly following the passing of former President Hoyte, the PPP/C grew exceedingly comfortable in its ruthless domination of all centres of power that it had access to.

Parliament was its plaything. It cracked its whip and the vote went its way. There was no semblance of compromise or willingness to concede any ground to the opposition on any important legislation. Thus bill after important bill carried the hallmark of its domination of the House – the unacceptable authority given to the respective subject ministers.  Its use of its majority vote to have its way was naked and unrelenting. Even after bills were passed some were not assented to or brought into force.

The shoe is now on the other foot. Having narrowly lost control of Parliament, the PPP/C is now fretting each day at the opposition’s new found ability to have a greater say in the parliamentary agenda, the peopling of Parliament’s important committees and ultimately the content of the laws passed.

Aside from the reform of the constitution 10 years ago, nothing promises more significant and meaningful change to parliamentary life and better governance in the country than the one-seat edge that the opposition has. Thursday’s sitting of the National Assembly was a most welcome and refreshing change from the two decades of set pieces that the PPP/C had crafted for the public. The intense questioning of Finance Minister, Dr Ashni Singh and the rebuff of his positions when necessitated must have been a revelation to the viewing public and one that bodes well for accountability. This would be the appropriate time for live and unedited broadcasts of parliamentary sessions to the public. It will be a revelation.

The government must now realize that compromise is the name of the game at Parliament and not pout and create unnecessary dramas as it did last Thursday after the marathon session in which its two financial papers came under careful scrutiny. The ruling party’s convenient resort to accusations that parliamentary conventions are being ignored by the opposition is unadulterated nonsense. It must remember that there was a time when its Leader of the House for Government Business was not the Prime Minister, as should be the case, but Minister Reepu Daman Persaud.

In the same manner that the opposition chronicled its litany of parliamentary snubs be it in relation to questions, motions, bills or applications for the adjournment of the House on matters of urgent public importance, the PPP/C government now gets the exact opportunity to test whether the opposition is prepared to be flexible with it and enable it to pursue its programmes for country. At the same time, the PPP/C gets to show its willingness to submit its ministers and officials to testify frankly and fully before the various committees of parliament and take heed of appropriate advice. It further gets to show its willingness to support legislation presented by the opposition and ultimately whether President Ramotar will sign it into law.

The 2010 Auditor General’s report – as deficient as it is – presents a sublime example of how the government continues to ignore broad accountability checks such as the Public Procurement Commission, the Contingencies Fund and accounting for all public monies like the lotto funds via the Consolidated Fund. It cannot expect the opposition to turn a blind eye to these glaring transgressions in the future and should understand that compromises with it will likely depend on whether it has kept its word. A recurring problem as cited again by the Auditor General has been procurements via the New Guyana Pharmaceutical Corporation despite the fact this has been raised for several years at the level of the Public Accounts Committee and during parliamentary debates.

So there is a long road to travel for all the parties in parliament before any of them can express disenchantment and griping of the type evinced by the government delegation at the press conference following Thursday’s sitting. What the PPP/C needs to come to grips with quickly is that it has to begin crafting honourable compromises with the opposition and the sooner it shows this flexibility the greater the chances are that its programmes will be implemented even if with modifications.

Immediately, the onus is on the government to engage with the opposition on the budget so that when the speech is made in parliament and the budget debate is concluded there would be a reasonable expectation that it will pass. A review of the VAT rate, the income tax threshold, public service pay and priority capital expenditure programmes should be on the agenda for these talks in line with the pre-election commitments of the parties and also public sentiment.

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