How real is our Parliament, as a repository of the power of the people, to effect good governance?
Since the 2011 general elections, this question has generated enormous interest, the most recent being Chief Justice Ian Chang’s ruling that Parliament is quite limited in its power to chop excesses off Government’s annual national budget.
Stabroek News columnist and former government minister, in several portfolios, under different Presidents, Henry Jeffrey, lambasted the Chief Justice’s ruling in his last column in this newspaper, noting with indignant disgust that Justice Chang’s ruling “failed to take into consideration the general trends in international parliamentary/budgetary relations, long and historical practice in Guyana and even the nature of our society, which cries out for arrangements that will force compromise.
Government pointman on this issue, Attorney General Anil Nandlall, gleefully applauded Justice Chang’s ruling as a victory for the State, and Finance Minister Ashni Singh roared his approval that his upcoming 2014 national budget would not see the severe crisis it generated in the National Assembly last year.
Members of the Opposition expressed their displeasure at Justice Chang’s ruling, meanwhile, and pledged to still hold Government accountable, though with vague hand waving at the empty air, articulating no clear strategic plan on how to achieve State accountability.
This sad story illustrates just how messed up we are as a society.
Jeffrey’s jab that the court ruling further exacerbates the divides and acrimony that riddle our nation is a telling point.
As Government and the Court pat themselves on their backs for this “victory”, the Opposition in Parliament, holding a majority, and the people of the country, the voters, who see wanton waste in, for example, a collapsed $44M dollar bridge at Moruca, and who encounter incredible financial irregularities documented in the Auditor General’s Report, year after year, see their power trimmed to a deafening silence.
Jeffrey raised the disturbing point that Justice Chang alone made his decision on the ruling, one fallible human pronouncing on the fate of a nation, in the name of an infallible Court.
We sit on vague notions in the Constitution about who holds ultimate power in our land. Is it the Executive President? Is it Parliament? Is it the Court? Is it one Judge, acting as the Court?
The Constitution remains a document so prone to subjective interpretation that our nation’s judicial system may lack the mechanisms it needs to be our concrete foundation, being a shaky, wobbly, malleable pillar that acts more as a guidepost than an anchor point for real justice.
Within the context of how fragile is the integrity of our national institutions, one would think such a vital issue as ruling on the power of the people in a democratic society through their elected representatives in Parliament would be done with a lot more care and consideration and thought.
Jeffrey’s column raises these points, which warrant widespread discussion if our nation is to recover not only from the consequences of the 1980 Constitution, but also move forward in the spirit of compromise, workable cooperation and inclusiveness.
In the same breath that we look with sober reflection on this virtual muzzling of the power of the National Assembly, by the Court, we must also question the Opposition on their lack of foresight, action, strategic planning and preparation to deal with issues like this.
The Opposition, if it really wants to exercise the power of the people in the National Assembly, must demonstrate the fortitude, resolve, wisdom and intellectual resources to make that power a real force, a concrete foundation of our democracy.
The very concept of democracy anticipates the exercise of power by ordinary citizens over the State, through the institutional framework of Parliament, the Office of the Ombudsman, and other democratic organs.
Elected representatives must be the go-between that reins in State excesses that harass the population.
Jeffrey makes a significant point in his column: at the end of the day our society is prone to the frailties and fallibility of human nature, which tend to cause deformities in the exercise of power.
The idea of a democratic society is to entrench systems and institutions to compensate for and balance out the whims and fancies of human nature.
The Guyanese society stands with almost ultimate power resting in the State, particularly Government Ministers and an Executive President who is empowered to ignore, for example, Parliament’s insistence on local government elections, instead delaying legislation.
And now we see that power being extended, through the fragility of our Constitution’s malleability, to the Chief Justice, acting alone as the Court.
In one ruling, justified without strong reference to international legal precedents, we see Parliament stripped of its perceived power.
Who we blame here is not an issue. We cannot blame Government for wanting to govern without a wary Opposition bombarding it with questions; we cannot blame the Chief Justice for the way he conducted the case; we cannot blame the Opposition for its inefficient, inept handling of the people’s power. Instead, we must cast aside the blame game, and genuinely work to resolve this power crisis that stifles our nation.
Disempowered, Guyanese citizens retreat into a passive place of non-contribution to social progress, or look to migrate. And the vicious circle of losing our skilled people perpetuates our decline as a nation.
When a Government is in power for over two decades, its fallible human agents become arrogant, power-obsessed, insisting they know what’s best.
And the people become weary, beaten, fed up, frustrated, unable to even demand and cause local government elections over their towns and villages, unable to stop the rut that erodes their capital city.
Parliament becomes a place they see as a toothless talk shop.
The Guyanese citizen feels intensely disempowered in his own society. Overseas, in America and Canada and the Caribbean, Guyanese hear that their family could easily gaff with their Member of Parliament, and get action, even on immigration problems.
But we look up at our Parliament, and feel our lack of power, to even exercise our voice in the governance of our nation.