With talks between the Ramotar administration and the opposition failing to yield a budget compromise, Speaker of the National Assembly Raphael Trotman is to rule today on whether the National Assembly can reduce the government’s proposed spending estimates.
A meeting between the government and opposition at Office of the President (OP) ended in a stalemate and the scheduled start of the line by line consideration of the estimates in the Committee of Supply was delayed as the two sides were split over whether the National Assembly is authorised to make the cuts that have been proposed.
Speaker Raphael Trotman, who heard arguments from both government and opposition speakers, later said he needed time to review the submissions from both sides before making his ruling.
The government is arguing that the preliminary ruling by acting Chief Justice Ian Chang clearly establishes that the National Assembly is not empowered to cut the budget, but both APNU and the AFC, which together hold a one-seat majority, have said alterations are legally permissible.
A year after instituting over $20 billion in cuts, which was later signed into law by President Donald Ramotar, AFC has already stated that it plans to seek almost double that in cuts, while APNU has signalled that it will not approve the combined $6.8 billion being used to bail out GPL and GuySuCo.
It was hoped that yesterday’s meeting at OP would see the two sides reach an agreement ahead of the scheduled consideration of the estimates. They did not but they have agreed to meet again tomorrow morning to continue the talks.
APNU and the AFC had tabled11 proposals for the talks, ranging from a wage hike for the public service without prejudice to the collective bargaining processes to the revocation of radio licences controversially handed out shortly before the 2011 general elections.
Ramotar led the government’s delegation at the meeting, which was made up of Head of the Presidential Secretariat Dr Roger Luncheon, Minister of Finance Dr Ashni Singh, Minister of Housing and Water Irfaan Ali and Presidential adviser on Governance Gail Teixeira. APNU was represented by leader David Granger, Shadow Finance Minister Carl Greenidge and MP Joe Harmon, and AFC was represented by its leader Khemraj Ramjattan and executive David Patterson.
The Government Information Agency (GINA) later quoted President Ramotar as saying that there seemed to be need for broader consultations. “Our government is always ready for consultation. We have had consultations with them, but I think they need broader consultation or a longer period of time in looking at some issues which we have agreed to,” he said.
GINA further said there were some reservations about certain issues put forward by the opposition which Ramotar argued are in violation of fundamental principles, like collective bargaining and cannot be resolved by “us getting together.”
After the conclusion of the three-hour-long meeting, one of the opposition participants of the meeting said government did not accept any of the points the opposition made and instead offered reasons why it could not accept any of the conditions laid out in a letter that had been addressed to the president. “We left the meeting without any pluses,” the source said.
According to the source, the president asked the AFC whether there was any nexus between the demands made by the opposition in the letter and the proposed cuts to which the answer was no.
However, the government is said to have committed to providing by the end of this week status reports on expenditure of the amounts allocated to the GPL and GuySuCo in last year’s budget.
Stabroek News understands that in the light of the ongoing talks, the opposition will be prepared to listen to the answers proffered by various ministers in the examination of the estimates in the Committee of Supply today and onwards before determining whether to go ahead with the cuts.
Speaking on the proposed cuts, Attorney General Anil Nandlall said that while he is aware of the powers of the parliamentary majority, he wanted to ensure that it stays within “the four corners” of the Constitution.
“We have to accept and send a strong signal to our people and possibly to the world whether we are going to accept fundamental truths and constitutional realities by which we are bound,” he said.
Nandlall added that it is wrong to say that a preliminary ruling cannot be enforced. Further he said that the argument stating that the ruling cannot be appealed is “puerile and vexatious.”
He said that the Chief Justice’s ruling is written in clear English language and “we are trying to twist it to suit our political respective ends,” which is an affront to the judiciary.
“We have to accept whether we are going to continue as a civilised nation to be bound by certain foundational principles that our legal system embraces,” he said. He said that whether one is minority to majority in the House, “we owe allegiance to that document (the Constitution).”
Nandlall emphasised that the judiciary is the guardian of the Constitution and Parliament is subject to the Constitution.
“There is no authority under our system that can second guess the ruling of the High Court when it comes to the Constitution. Your honour suffers from being in the invidious position of being asked now to essentially review a ruling from a tribunal the Constitution has appointed as its sole arbiter of whether it is breached or not,” said Nandlall.
“Does the High Court have a supervisory jurisdiction over the National Assembly of Guyana?” asked Trotman.
“Yes Sir,” said Nandlall. “When that supervisory jurisdiction is activated and a ruling emanates, it is not open to any institution in this land to second guess it,” he added.
He further said that no form of appeal was filed against the Chief Justice’s ruling and while the Opposition may not agree with the ruling of the Chief Justice, they are bound by it.
‘Winners, no losers’
APNU MP Deborah Backer said she believed the House can legally amend the budget. She called for there to be talks so that the result is a budget of compromise that makes space for everyone. She said that there have been attempts to amend budgets in Caricom but they did not have the numbers to be successful.
She said that were the government serious about reaching out, then there would have been able to come together with the opposition on the budget. “We would have come to a compromise and while neither side would have gotten everything it wanted in the budget we would have been able to say to our people, ‘we could not get everything for you but we got A, B and C,’” she said. “We would have all left here as winners, no losers. Guyana also would have won,” she said.
She said that the Constitution permits the opposition to alter or reduce the budget and Article 171 bears this out. She said too that the Appropriation Bill can be amended by the House.
“I believe that legally we can cut and I believe too, Sir, that in terms of governance and moving this country forward, we have a responsibility to sit together and come up with a budget [that helps to close the disparity between the rich and the poor],” she said.
APNU MP Basil Williams said that it should be rejected “out of hand” that the House can disapprove the budget in its entirety but not items in that budget. “We could reduce in the Committee of Supply and at a later stage… the government has time to go back and do the necessary correction,” he said.
Williams rejected the idea of duress as suggested by government for the passing of the Appropriations Bill in 2012, following cuts to the budget and a corresponding amendment to the Bill prior to passage. He said that the reasons for the passing of the bill remain irrelevant.
He said that the government has the option of not bringing an Appropriation Bill as amended following eventual cuts.
Ramjattan, meanwhile, told the House that it is better to have reductions in the budget than to have a total rejection of it. He said that the Constitution gives the House the power to amend the budget. “When we say we can do a better job by reducing the spending it is a part of democracy,” he said.