The PPP/C must learn to respect the constitution

A Partnership for National Unity column

Stabroek News has invited the People’s Progressive Party/Civic, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance for Change   to submit a weekly column on local government and related matters. Only APNU has submitted one this week.

The People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPP/C) administration seems  to believe that it can trample on citizens’ fundamental rights indefinitely. This is illustrated by the introduction of the  Local Government (Amendment) Bill, No. 12 of 2012 that was needed to fulfil a constitutional provision enacted in 2001.

The purpose of this Bill was to amend the Local Government Act (Cap. 28:02) to bring it into conformity with the new constitutional provision. The Bill that was tabled, however, did not fulfil this mandate or, in particular, provide that “local democratic organs shall be autonomous.” This was because it retained sections (13 and 14) which allowed a Minister to assume and exercise “any or all of the powers of a local authority whenever it appears to the Minister expedient so to do …”

20140313APNU logoIt was left to the members of the combined opposition – A Partnership for National Unity and the Alliance For Change – in the Special Select Committee (SSC) to which the Bill had been referred, to correct this anomaly. The Bill that was tabled in the National Assembly on July 30, 2012 was eventually passed on August 7, 2013.

Another glaring and incomprehensible defect in the Bill as tabled was that it did not seek in section 2 (‘definitions’) to insert the Local Government Commission which was another key feature of the new constitutional articles introduced in 2001. It was to be empowered to “deal with all matters related to the regulation and staffing of local government organs”.

The Bill, instead, sought to delete the definition of district commissioner (a post long since abolished) and to insert the Regional Executive Officer of a Regional Democratic Council. REOs belong to Cap. 28:09 (legislation governing RDCs) and the administrative officers of Neighbourhood Democratic Councils (organs regulated under Cap. 28:02) are its overseers.

The public is aware of how the central government uses REOs to miniaturise the authority of these regional governments or RDCs.

The intent of this proposal could only be to seek to extend this aberration of central control to the lower tiers as well. This is the respect, or rather total lack of respect, that the PPP has for local democracy, the authority of local democratic organs and their constitutional guarantee of autonomy. The intent is to trample on all the above.

Ninety-nine days would elapse before the Speaker of the National Assembly was informed of the withholding of assent to this Bill by the President. It must be noted that Art. 170 (3) of the Constitution requires that a Bill to which the President withholds his assent must be returned to the Speaker “within 21 days when it was presented to him”. It begs the question as to where was this Bill for the 78 days, if it is that the President did not deliberately flout the Constitution.

The issue becomes even more alarming when one examines the reasons for the withholding of Presidential assent. These were given as : (1) that clauses 6, 13 and 14 of the Bill are in collision with and ultra vires of the Constitution, and (2) that many clauses in the Bill tabled by the Minister, were deleted without any insertions to fill the void created, thereby leading to structural deficiencies in the functional architecture of Local Government.

The facts are that clause 6 of the approved Bill was the original clause in the Minister’s Bill. The amendment to it that was effected by the Special Select Committee (SSC) was reversed on the floor of the National Assembly consequent to a Motion put by Minister Whittaker on the day of the vote and which received the support of the opposition. If evidence is needed of the incompetence of this government and of the Attorney General in particular, here is one.

Secondly, with regard to the contention that the amended version of clauses 13 and 14 being ultra vires of the Constitution, it is the opposite that is true. The 1980 Constitution and its revisions to 2001 guarantee autonomy to local democratic organs. Any legislation that purports to give a Minister the power to override this, therefore, has to be unconstitutional. Finally, while the message from the President refers to “many clauses, etc”, none was listed.

The PPP/C administration must never again think that it can abuse citizen’s rights and local democracy.

History informs us that this does not happen. The sooner that the administration comes to its senses and decides to respect the Constitution, therefore, the less will be the damage to local democracy as well as neglect of our communities.