The opposition two years on

Gifted with an historic one-seat majority following the November 28, 2011 general elections, the opposition must now do some soul-searching on whether they have managed to employ that advantage for the betterment of the people. Never before in its history has the country been governed by a party which had only a minority in parliament. The PPP/C might well have seen this as a measure of relief for being denied the expected opportunity in 1964 to try to form a majority government. History aside, the result two years ago was the starkest rejection of the ruling party since the return of free and fair elections in 1992 and one that should have led to wholesale changes in its statecraft which it hasn’t. A majority voted against its policies and were it not for the Burnham constitution the PPP/C would have today been sitting on the opposition benches and battling significant odds to regroup.

Though it could not secure the presidency, the opposition was handed a powerful mandate in Parliament on the back of the majority of those who voted. It effectively controlled the legislative branch of government and the people who voted the opposition into that position had high expectations for a transformation of all that was wrong with governance under the uninterrupted 21-year reign of the PPP/C.

Without a doubt, many of those who voted for the opposition would today be sorely disappointed with their performance. After having taken stock of the challenges in 2011, the opposition has performed as if in haphazard retreat.  There has been much steam and rhetoric but little strategic planning and use of their parliamentary majority to wrought the change that is needed to move the country forward.

Extracting real concessions from the PPP/C was always dependent on mature dialogue with the President outside of parliament. This has not happened and its denial by the President has been made easier by the disarray that the opposition has found itself in. Had the opposition been able to exercise its authority as a disciplined 33 versus 32 in parliament, it is more than likely that President Ramotar would have seen the need to take them far more seriously. As we have argued several times before in these columns, the opposition needed unanimity of purpose, a carefully constructed legislative programme and a plan to see it through.   There was and is no such plan.

On entering the 10th Parliament, both APNU and the AFC should have been able to discern the immediate areas for change. For the first time ever the opposition would have been able to approve bills and test the President’s intent.  The opposition got around to presenting bills to the President late in the day. Indeed, it was only in January of this year that the first two bills passed with an opposition majority were sent to the President only to be denied assent. All of 2012 was wasted in this respect.

Considering that the legislature was the place to make their stand and that they had named the Speaker of the House, the opposition should have done their utmost to ensure that legal counsel was available in Parliament to aid them with their drafting of bills and to end the absurd lodging of bills with the Attorney General’s Chambers before the President saw them. To date, this has not been achieved even though the Speaker and the parties have spoken about securing the independence of the legislature.

There would have been a long list of priorities for the opposition. The first among these would have been exercising influence over the annual budgetary process and defining its parameters. The 2012 budget consideration found the opposition divided and it was only upon the collapse of a behind-the-scenes arrangement between the government and APNU that the two parties joined forces to slash large amounts in the budget that they were not satisfied with. This pattern was repeated for the 2013 budget and it will likely play out again in 2014. Yet, the opposition has nothing to show for cuts administered over two years. None of the agencies targeted have amended their ways neither is their greater accountability over expenditure. The government has made clear its intention to tap the Contingencies Fund and other loopholes and the opposition has been unable to do anything about it. Taking the legal case that has ensued over the budget as far as the Caribbean Court of Justice seems nowhere near. The end result has been that a parliamentary opposition in the majority has failed comprehensively over two years to effect any positive change on the budget and expenditure.

Local government elections would obviously have been one of the top goals for the opposition. After the 1992 elections, the PPP/C was able to convene these in less than two years. Despite the enormous international pressure on the government to hold these polls, the opposition has thus far been unable to secure assent for all four pieces of vital local government legislation and even some of those assented to have been diluted with opposition assistance in Parliament. It is unclear how soon these polls will be held as the opposition has not been unable to overcome the government’s stalling. Needless to say, in the interim, the government has aggressively overturned more and more local government bodies and inserted their supporters, further denying the people a chance to determine their own affairs.

A third area of emphasis for the opposition would surely have been enlivening institutional checks on the executive and ensuring their independence. On this score, the opposition has failed miserably. Its flagship project the Public Procurement Commission (PPC) remains mired in a logjam that will not be easily overcome as it requires two-thirds parliamentary support for the eventual candidates. Yet, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament has meandered along on this matter without seeking decisive action – perhaps a vote up or down? Believe it or not the matter is now with a sub-committee of the PAC to examine and make recommendations on the criteria for nominees to the PPC. That aside, the opposition bungled an opportunity on the PAC to prevent a questionable promotion in the Auditor General’s office. To date a fully constituted Integrity Commission is still not in place, neither is the Ombudsman or the Public Service Appellate Tribunal. Key appointments to the judiciary also remain deadlocked.

The opposition may discern impact in several areas including on the Amaila Hydro project and on the anti-money laundering bill. At best these are pyrrhic victories. Moreover, the Amaila project only collapsed because the investor was unwilling to tolerate the risk of proceeding without unanimous parliamentary approval. Were it not for that, the Amaila project would have proceeded pell-mell in the same manner as the Marriott Hotel construction. Again it was an external agency, the CFATF which prompted the government to move on the anti-money laundering legislation. Unfortu-nately, the opposition was made to seem obstructionist by not presenting to parliament and the public the amendments they thought vital to the bill.

With an ineffective parliamentary majority, the opposition has failed to exert influence on key areas such as crime and the home affairs portfolio. Law enforcement continues to suffer immensely as a result and there is no sign that the government is prepared for fundamental change.

The government continues to strike opaque deals and arrangements with a series of Asian companies and interests which are not being brought to parliament and there is very little that the opposition has been able to discover.

Parliamentary sittings have not been as frequent as they should be and this again is something that works against the opposition. Thursday’s planned sitting of Parliament could be the last for the year and the opposition needs to begin constructing a purposeful and potent legislative programme to bring real change to governance.


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