Speaker says all four local gov’t bills were passed unanimously, PPP ministers differ

The country is still waiting for President Donald Ramotar to decide on whether he will assent to four local government bills but in the meantime there is a difference of opinion on whether they were passed unanimously with the Speaker of the National Assembly saying aye but two PPP ministers differing.

The bills – the Fiscal Transfers Bill, the Local Government (Amendment) Bill, the Municipal and District Councils (Amend-ment) Bill, and the Local Government Commission Bill – were passed by the National Assembly on August 7.

According to House Speaker Raphael Trotman, all four bills were passed unanimously, as none of the political parties in the National Assembly – A Partnership for National Unity (APNU), the Alliance for Change (AFC) and the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) – sought to oppose their passing.

Clerk of the National Assembly Sherlock Isaacs reinforced the Speaker’s position when contacted by Stabroek News. He said that the official record of Parliament (Hansard) shows that none of the Members of Parliament voted to oppose the passing of the bills which is indicative of a unanimous decision.

Furthermore, he said that all three parties were on the committee which scrutinized the Bills before bringing them to the National Assembly, and played a role in the architecture of the Bills. Despite the positions of these two senior parliamentary officials, at least two members of the PPP/C have said that two of the Bills were not unanimously passed.

Local Government Minis-ter Ganga Persaud has said that while two of the Bills were passed unanimously – the Municipal and District Councils (Amendment) Bill and the Fiscal Transfers Bill – the same cannot be said for the remaining two.

Persaud argues that the government still has issues with the Local Government Commission Bill and the Local Government (Amend-ment) Bill, hence its decision not to support their passing.

This position was reiterated by Minister within the Ministry of Local Govern-ment, Norman Whittaker during a recent press conference. Issues with the two Bills, Whittaker told reporters, date back to their consideration by the Special Select Committee on Local Government.

Despite the government’s disapproval of opposition-proposed amendments to the Bills, Persaud said that the opposition parties used their majority standing in the committee to send the Bills back to the National Assembly for passage.

Whether the bills were passed unanimously or not is significant for a number of reasons. Unanimous passage would make it unlikely that the President would decline to assent to bills that have been blessed by all parliamentarians, particularly those from his party and his own Attorney General. In the event that he still decides not to assent to the bills, under the constitution he could be compelled to do so if Parliament returned the bills to him with the support of two-thirds of the legislature. If this mechanism were to be attempted, PPP/C MPs would be called upon to restate their support for the bills or alternatively explain why they had backtracked from their previous position.

During the National Assembly debates which preceded the passing of the Bills, Persaud argued that the Local Government Commission Bill as completed at the level of the select committee, will give the commission the ability to hire, fire, as well as determine the remuneration of employees of local governing organs, a role, he said, is supposed to be with the local government bodies themselves.

This move, he said, would do the opposite of what the Bill is intended to do – make local governing institutions more autonomous. Also, the opposition, at the select committee stage, removed the minister’s ability to terminate the appointment of members of the commission “for any good and sufficient cause.”

Instead, the minister will now be required to consult with the leader of the opposition before such action is taken. Despite these qualms however, the Bills were passed.

The Local Government (Amendment) Bill was also the centre of much debate. Clauses 13 and 14 of the bill in particular seek to transplant several responsibilities which currently lie with the minister to the commission. For example, under the present laws the minister has the power to hire and fire members of local Neighbourhood Democratic Councils (NDCs) and municipalities.

These provisions were amended at the level of the select committee and the opposition voted to strip the minister of these powers which APNU MP Ronald Bulkan, during the debate, referred to as “imperialist.” Bulkan, during his presentation said that the laws which gave the minister the power to make decisions in such a manner were archaic and out of place in a “modern democracy.” He said that all efforts should be made to make the local government agencies more autonomous, hence the move by the opposition to remove this power from the government.

Further, Bulkan said that the bill, as laid by government, would give it the power to determine the rates, taxes and other fees to be collected by the local governing bodies, while AFC MP Moses Nagamootoo said that if the government has their way, the NDCs and municipalities would be required to seek approval from central government to carry out their operations.

Whittaker in reply had said that it is important for government to play an important role in local governing bodies especially since it is central government which funds much of their operations. During his presentation in August he accused the opposition of hijacking the bill and said that their actions sought to dilute the authority of the Ministry of Local Government.

It is for these reasons, he said, during a press briefing, that it would be incorrect to conclude that the Bills were passed unanimously. He maintained that government still has issues with several of the provisions in both bills.

The Speaker nevertheless insists that the Bills were passed unanimously and cautioned against the perception that they were not.

He explained that though the government had issues with two of the Bills, when the time came to vote on them, they did not oppose their passing. Furthermore, he said, Prime Minister Samuel Hinds, Leader of the House for Government Business, did not call for a division after the vote, a practice that is common in instances where the government opposes a motion or bill before the National Assembly.

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