Timeline for constitution reform premature – President

Despite an APNU+AFC manifesto commitment to take draft constitutional amendments to Parliament within nine months of taking office, more than a year into his administration, President David Granger is not prepared to commit to a timeline.

Asked by Stabroek News on this week’s “The Public Interest” programme if his government is willing to work with a strict, published timetable given the manifesto promise to provide a draft to parliament in nine months, the President said “talking about a timeline now would be premature. More than rushing to a timeline I would like to see thorough countrywide consultations not boardroom consultations.”

He reminded that he has asked for the reform process to be consultative because different opinions on the constitution have existed since the mid-1970s.

“The last attempt at constitutional reform was not fully completed. There is a large list of recommendations which were never implemented because we had to move into the 2011 elections,” Granger said adding that persons charged with reform must

now go to all communities and speak with people who cannot travel regardless of how long

it will take.

The President further noted that in nine months his government has put out a framework and in that regard has stuck to its manifesto commitment.

“There is a framework, it is at Cabinet,” he said.

Questions have been raised about the government’s commitment to constitutional reform which it had been vocal in calling for prior to coming into office last year and which had formed a major plank of its campaign for office.

The APNU+AFC coalition had highlighted constitutional reform in its manifesto released during the general elections campaign last year. The manifesto stated that within the first 100 days of the formation of a government of National unity a number of things would be done including the “Establishment of a Constitutional Reform Commit-tee with a mandate to complete consultations, draft amendments and present same to the National Assembly for approval within nine months.” A year has since gone by but nothing has reached the National Assembly.

The coalition had trumpeted constitutional reform several times in its manifesto. One reference said that “APNU+AFC recognizes that the Constitution, in its current form, does not serve the best interest of Guyana or its people. Within three months of taking up office, APNU+AFC will appoint a Commission to amend the Constitution with the full participation of the people. The new Constitution will put the necessary checks and balances in place to consolidate our ethos of liberal democracy. Freedom of speech, reduction of the power of the President and the Bill of Rights will be enshrined in the document.”

Another reference spoke to “immediately” appointing a Constitutional Reform Commission consisting of representatives of all major stakeholders – trades unions, the private sector, religious and faith-based organisations, women, youths, professional organizations and the University. “Its mandate will be to undertake the urgent task of fashioning comprehensive reforms, for early implementation, designed to guarantee a democratic society free from the abuse of citizens by those in high office fuelled by the exercise of arbitrary powers and behaviour by the Executive which is inconsistent with the spirit and provisions of the Constitution,” the document said.

Government had set up a Steering Committee on Constitutional Reform (SCCR) to lay the groundwork for a new constitutional reform process and at the end of April, it handed over its final report to Prime Minister Moses Nagamootooo. The report has not been released to the public.

Among other things, the SCCR recommended a reduction of immunities for the President, limiting the powers to prorogue or dissolve Parliament and excluding the Attorney General from Cabinet so the holder of that office remains unbiased and impartial. It envisioned the completion of the entire process within 18 months.

The body recommended a three-tiered reform system where a group of legal experts on the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC) would prepare a draft document encompassing some of the SCCR’s recommendations. This will then be distributed to stakeholders including representatives of political parties and civil society. The CRC will then be expanded to include representatives of political parties and civil society. The expanded CRC will then deliberate on submissions received and prepare a report which is to be perfected by its legal experts. This report will then be taken to the National Assembly for debate after which a referendum or some other method would be employed for the prospective adopting of the recommendations.

Since independence, there have been several exercises to change the Constitution utilising different mechanisms. The first attempt after the Independence Constitution was in 1980 when the mechanism was a Constituent Assembly established by a motion of the National Assembly and comprising mainly the National Assembly. The second effort was after the 1992 elections when the National Assembly established a Special Select Committee by motion. It did not complete its work by 1997 when the National Assembly was dissolved for the 1997 elections. The most recent process was in 1999-2000 by the Constitution Reform Commission, which was established by the Constitution Reform Com-mission Act. By agreement among the political parties, the Act provided that the Commission comprise political parties and civil society.

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