The APNU+AFC government does not have a strategic approach for dealing with the Private Sector Commission (PSC); thus its recent reactive response to the legitimate concerns expressed by that organisation in relation to the State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA) Bill, parking meter controversy, rule of law and economy have been highly propagandistic and unhelpful if one believes that the private sector is indeed the engine of growth.
That the PSC has long been perceived, particularly by supporters of the government, as a handmaiden of the PPP/C is well known and not without some justification. For example, in the run up to 2015 elections it supported the PPP/C regime in most if not all of its important quarrels with the opposition, including over the Marriott, Amaila and airport projects. When the PPP/C government received a bad 2012 corruption report and questioned the methodology by which the report was compiled, the PSC was in lock-step: ‘The PSC expressed further concern that the Index is based on perceptions and not reality, and the methodology used may not be appropriate’.
The belief is that the PSC behaves this way because it is dominated by economic interests that have their roots among the traditional supporters of the PPP/C. While there might be some truth to this, acting upon it should be tempered by the knowledge that, on the whole, businesspeople tend to give priority to their own interest. Furthermore, the APNU+AFC government should note that the PPP/C was in office for over two decades and appeared irremovable, thus an environment of submission developed, that should not now be taken for granted.
This potpourri of neutralizing tendencies can contribute to the formation of a very productive relationship but it requires that the government takes a long view of its relationship with the PSC. Even if provoked, it should play more to its role as the aggregator of policy-making opinions and be measured in its responses. Crass name calling will only inflame and possibly entrench negative perceptions.
As I see it, a root cause for disputes between the government and the PSC is the nature of meaningful involvement in decision-making, and unless properly conceptualized, this is likely to be a persistent problem. Only recently, in collaboration with the Guyana Trades Union Congress, the PSC attempted to make an intervention in the parliamentary budget process because it was dissatisfied with what was taking place. It also has a quarrel about the lack of meaningful consultation with the city council over the parking meter controversy and had its suggestions for inclusion in the SARA Bill rebuffed. What then is the point of all the consultations?
The government appears to believe that once it listens and claims that consideration was given to an issue the matter ends. As Minister of State Joseph Harmon stated: ‘Clearly the recommendations that have been made by the private sector, … were taken into consideration” (‘Debate on SARA bill to go ahead as planned – Harmon:’ SN:18/02/2017). Consultation is only useful when those who are consulted believe that their opinions have a good chance of being incorporated into the final product, and that only comes about when, over time, some of their inputs have been so incorporated.
One way to mitigate this difficulty is to introduce stakeholders early in the decision-making process and to avoid consulting them upon near-completed government positions. In appropriate circumstances, green and white paper-type arrangements should be adopted to alert and get the inputs of stakeholders very early in the process.
Then, when dealing with major stakeholders, written submissions should be requested and responded to in written form. When disputes arise and these documents are published, they should help the public and stakeholders to arrive at a better understanding of the quarrel and the government to better make its case. The PSC should not be complaining that it is: ‘alarmed at the fact that the entire missive, purportedly emanating from the Government of Guyana, addresses none of the points raised in the Commission’s statement’ (PSC press release, 18/02/2017).
Parliamentary interventions are not normal consultations: they are constitutional rights that should not be simply dismissed at the government’s behest. It would be foolhardy of anyone to accept that once their position has been rejected at a governmental level it should not be pursued at other existing levels, and the select committee process is one such direct or indirect level (the parties can be invited to make their case to their elected representatives and/or could make the case through such representatives) that a democratic government should not attempt to truncate.
A Bill usually goes through five stages and some believe that the committee stage is the most important. At the first reading, the Bill is merely announced and the second focuses upon the principles of the Bill and allows the government and opposition the opportunity to ‘play politics’ by taking their case, for or against the law, to their constituencies and the nation.
During the committee stage, the bill should be examined in detail, clause by clause, and rather than playing politics, in the interest of the nation the parties are expected to pool their expertise to produce the best possible law. There is then the reporting stage during which what took place in the committee stage is reported to the full assembly, and finally the third reading at which stage the Bill is usually passed without amendments. Of course, in our majoritarian system, the government, usually having a majority, will win, but the system is designed to allow the parties to play to their political interest and then settle down to work in the national interest.
The Final Report of the Special Select Committee on the Needs Assessment of the Guyana National Assembly recognised the importance of the committee stage, particularly for major, complex Bills, and in opposition those now in government persistently requested that Bills be taken to committee stage.
The PSC is a necessary and important socio/economic institution and the government should take a strategic view of their relationship. To bear fruit, this will require a significant level of accommodation and hardnosed bargaining on all sides. As events are unfolding, the alternative will be unnecessary and costly disputes and tensions that can only have a negative effect on the national development agenda.