The independence of Guyana’s National Assembly

The cause of the political crisis in Guyana today is the determination of the executive to dominate the legislative branch of government. Sir Michael Davies, the Commonwealth adviser, whose Report – entitled Needs Assessment of the Guyana National Assembly – presented a sober, structured and serious indictment on the manner in which the Assembly was being managed.

The Davies Report exposed the methods devised by the executive which had the effect of thwarting democracy and undermining the Assembly’s independence. Davies concluded, in brief, that the National Assembly’s weaknesses were the result of the administration’s attempts to run the legislature like a government department rather than to allow it to function as an independent institution. The Report’s recommendations to enhance the National Assembly’s effectiveness, accordingly, were perceived as threatening to erode the very mechanisms that the executive branch put in place to fortify its control over the functioning of the legislative branch.

The Report drew attention to the fact that “meetings of the [National] Assembly are entirely at the whim of the Executive;” that both the staffing and the budget of the National Assembly are controlled by the Administration and that the work of the committees “is subject to frustration by the Executive.” It criticised the practice of submitting parliamentary Order Papers for sittings of the National Assembly to the Office of the President which, it said, “can and does strike out questions and motions which the Office [of the President] does not like.” That practice, it added, “apparently only started in 1992.”

20140501logoDavies noted that while the Administration appeared not to accept the assertion that, “the scheduling of meetings of the Assembly was entirely in the hands of the Executive,” he had seen evidence of this. He noted that the Administration “allows the Opposition few opportunities to debate policy or to consider bills.” He warned that, “if Opposition Members cannot ask the questions they would wish to ask they will abandon parliamentary process in favour of other action, as they have done in recent years.”

He added, specifically, “I was present at a meeting of the Parliamentary Management Committee on 1st February [2005] which was called at the request of Opposition members of the National Assembly expressly to demand a meeting of the Assembly to debate the flood situation and the government flatly refused to countenance a meeting for a further two weeks.”

Davies concluded that the “National Assembly of Guyana, though recognised as paramount in the Constitution, is sadly not playing its proper role in governance.” He identified seven main weaknesses – lack of independence of the parliament and its management from the control of the Executive; members who are not sufficiently au fait with their role within the parliamentary framework; an Opposition which is angry, frustrated and, therefore, does not grasp the opportunities afforded it by the rules of procedure; standing orders in need of revision; a committee system which is not properly functioning; insufficient qualified staff, with ill-defined roles and lack of procedural knowledge and, no awareness of the National Assembly’s responsibility to relate with civil society, the private sector and the wider public.

The National Assembly is obliged to recognise the damage which can be caused by internal ‘housekeeping’ problems such as those discovered by Sir Michael Davies. Members need also to represent the interests of their constituents and address issues of national importance. These concerns require time, thoughtful consideration, painstaking research and adequate resources to facilitate careful examination in order to articulate responses which will be in the public interest.

The majority of citizens were not yet born when Guyana became independent in 1966. The energy, excitement and the sense of empowerment which might have been experienced at the time of Independence has largely dissipated. Euphoria has been replaced by a perfunctory exercise every five years to elect an administration. Declining percentages of the electorate are going to the polls in some Caribbean countries.

Polius and Venner (Tracy Polius and John Venner, “Governance in the ECCB Area.” Presentation at the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank’s Fourth Annual Conference on Development. Bird Rock, October 1999) pointed out that poor governance can contribute to economic inefficiencies that are manifested in higher than required expenditure; misallocated and unproductive expenditures; lower tax revenues; higher taxes on certain sectors than required and poor quality service from the public sector.

The results of the general and regional elections in Guyana in November 2011 changed the situation. For the first time in the country’s political history, the government side has a minority and the opposition side a majority in the National Assembly. There is much work to be done, however, to regain the trust of the people in the efficacy of the parliamentary process. This is what the Opposition in Guyana has begun to do. Citizens need to be assured that their vote will translate into democracy and good governance; that their representatives will truly represent their interests and are accountable to them.

The National Assembly needs to re-energise citizens through openness and access to their representatives; through government which treats all citizens as equal under the law; through the sharing of information on matters of public interest and through subjugating partisan politics to the national interest. Only in this way will people’s interest in participation in the political life be rekindled, especially among the marginalised segments of the population.

 

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