Amid mounting criticism of the slow progress towards constitutional reform, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo yesterday said that a bill for a consultative commission has been drafted and around $80M is being sought to move the process along.
“We are on the road. It is not going to be easy. It is going to be a very complex and prolonged process but the Alliance For Change is determined that constitutional reform must remain a priority issue,” Nagamootoo yesterday told reporters at the AFC’s fortnightly press conference, held at its headquarters at Railway Line, Kitty.
“We went into the election and we promised constitutional reform. The AFC was foremost in its advocacy for certain changes to be made to our constitution to make it more people-friendly, if I may say that. Also, to open up the door for greater consultative democracy and participation by all stakeholders, including opposition political parties, in the process of governance, and we have not recoiled from that position,” he added.
The APNU+AFC government has come in for strong criticism for not holding true to its promise of starting a constitutional reform process within 100 days of being in office.
Professor Harold Lutchman and head of the 2000 Constitution Reform Commission Ralph Ramkarran have said that neither the coalition government nor the opposition PPP/C appear to have any appetite for constitutional reform.
“What they support when they are in government is entirely different to what they support when they are out of government. The same thing they criticise when they are out of power, the same thing when they are in power they don’t see anything wrong with,” Lutchman, who was a member of the Steering Committee on Constitutional Reform (SCCR) set up by the APNU+AFC government last year, told Stabroek News in an interview.
Nagamootoo, the point man in the administration for constitution reform, had received the SCCR report on April 30th, 2016 but more than six months later it has not been released.
The Prime Minister yesterday said that he has made a decision to have the report released to the public so that the recommendations could be used in the new consultative process.
He also informed that he has submitted proposals to the government, specifically Minister of Finance Winston Jordan, for allocations “to meet the requirements of constitutional reform” in next year’s budget, which will be presented on the 28th of this month.
Nagamootoo explained, “I haven’t seen the reworked figures but we were asking for a substantial sum, not below $80M. I don’t know what was finally approved. That is mainly for the consultation process, to take it to the different parts of the country and to establish a secretariat.”
He pointed out that the secretariat may consist of “no less than 2,000 persons,” including logistics officers and a detailed list of other personnel as government was “very serious about this …so we put all the figures and everything else…how many persons would operate computers, how many would transcribe testimonies etcetera.”
Promising to work with the opposition, as it represents a significant proportion of the populace and its support would be needed for a two-thirds vote for certain constitutional amendments in the House to pass, the Prime Minister pleaded for support. He said that a bill for a constitutional reform consultative commission has already been submitted to parliament and he is hoping that there is time for it to be debated before the year ends, if not early next year.
“I have tabled a draft bill, the Constitutional Reform Consultative Commission Bill 2016. I am hoping I can still get that done before the end of this year. If not, first thing in the new year, (so as) to set up a commission with a secretariat, to prepare to go nationwide to consult on aspects of the constitution that ought to be changed or reformed. I will make available copies of the final report by the steering committee on constitutional reform, headed by the outstanding attorney Nigel Hughes, so that the public could be guided as to the scope of the reform that had been proposed,” Nagamootoo stated.
“At the time when I would have tabled the Constitution Consultative Reform Commission Bill, I would expect that there would be some consultation with the opposition, in terms of the content of the Bill because I would seek to have full support,” he added.
Nagamootoo said that the Bill in itself is not controversial and was worked on by him, for free, given his experience as an attorney coupled with his involvement on the constitutional reform process since 1996. The Bill, according the Prime Minister, follows a format similar to the previous Constitutional Reform Commission Bill, “cutting a bit of the bureaucracy.”
United Nations agencies have also signaled their intention to help, he said.
“I have since spoken with the UNDP and they have promised technical support. I received yesterday, a proposal from the UNDP, which I didn’t get to read. The proposal, as I understand it, based on my discussion with the new UNDP Representative in Guyana …is that we will have a needs assessment team from the United Nations to see what is required to undertake constitutional reform.
The needs assessment will undertake a financial assessment so that at some appropriate time other international donors and countries could be approached and asked for assistance to carry through the constitutional reform process,” he stated.
“We have received a commitment from the UNICEF, that if we were to pursue reform in the constitution for the protection of children to consolidate the constitutional protection then they would make a contribution. They have indicated a sum, not a small sum as I understand it, a substantial sum to be able to help the constitutional reform process in this direction,” he added.
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.
When he was asked in June this year about constitution reform, President David Granger had said, “I don’t want a boardroom constitutional reform, I want a public discussion, I want people in their communities to meet and express their views. I don’t want a group of people sitting in a room saying what must be done.”
Critics have said that in its elections manifesto, APNU+AFC had pledged a much quicker pathway to constitutional reform.
The APNU+AFC manifesto had 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 Committee with a mandate to complete consultations, draft amendments and present same to the National Assembly for approval within nine months.”
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 organisations 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.