Though the Working People’s Alliance (WPA) – a member of the governing coalition – has expressed dissatisfaction with the APNU+AFC government’s failure to honour its manifesto promise of constitutional reform, President David Granger is insisting that progress is being made.
“We fought for the inclusion of Constitutional Reform as a very important and central plank of this (the APNU+AFC) manifesto. We are not satisfied that the government has moved purposefully in terms of dealing with Constitutional Reform”, WPA member Dr. David Hinds told a press conference at the party’s Queenstown Headquarters on Monday.
He said that the WPA has included constitutional reform in each of its manifestos since 1985.
Constitutional reform was one of the manifesto priorities of the APNU+AFC government during its 2015 elections campaign. Critics say it has spectacularly failed to live up to this key commitment.
The manifesto said that within three months of taking office, an APNU+AFC government would appoint a Commission to amend the Constitution with the full participation of the people, which among other things, would reduce the powers of the president.
“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,” the document stated.
The manifesto further stated that constitutional, electoral and parliamentary reforms are imperative. In this regard, an APNU+AFC government upon taking office will immediately appoint 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.
It has not met this commitment. Months after it entered power, it set up a Steering Committee on Constitutional Reform (SCCR) in August, 2015. Attorneys Nigel Hughes, Gino Persaud and Geeta Chandan-Edmond, as well as Professor Harold Lutchman and the late Haslyn Parris were on the committee. The remit of the committee was to give direction and scope within which the constitutional reform process should take place. The SCCR submitted a report to the government on April 30, 2016 but this to date has not been released by the government to the public although Stabroek News has reported on its contents.
In February, in what many saw as a delaying tactic, a team of constitutional experts from the United Nations (UN) system arrived here to conduct a constitutional reform needs assessment mission. The report produced by the UN experts was also not made public by the government but Stabroek News has reported on it.
Hinds told reporters that since the submission of the SCCR report, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo keeps saying “we are going to bring things on stream, we are going to bring things on stream (but) we are dissatisfied with that. We feel that Constitutional Reform is critical to everything that we are doing because constitutional reform has to do with the way the state for example is reconstructed…with the allocation of power…with the whole question of ethnicity and the sharing of power in this country.”
Hinds said that the party feels verily strongly about the “reduction of the powers of the President. We feel that despite some modification, the last time around in 1999/2001 that the presidential powers are still too much and we will like to see a modification of those powers”.
According to Hinds that reduction of powers is among the things the WPA feels needs to be done immediately. “…that constitutional reform should be put on the table as a central plank. Ultimately governments come and governments go but it is important that we have rules of engagement which is what a constitution is, rules of engagement that assure the population of this country that their security whether they be working people or whether they be ethnic communities that their securities are guaranteed constitutionally and so therefore we feel that constitutional reform is extremely important and we would argue within the APNU and the wider government for a kick-starting of the constitutional reform process and to make good on our promise in the manifesto”, he said.
However, when quizzed on this at State House yesterday, Granger said that government is now looking at money to finance the process. Noting that Prime Minister Nagamootoo is responsible for moving the constitutional reform process along, Granger told reporters, “we have made some progress… we had the first proposal. I think there is a question now of financing the process because we want to have a consultative process but it is moving it hasn’t been halted”.
It is unclear why money is not yet available as Finance Minister Winston Jordan in his budget presentation for 2017 on November 28 last year had said that $80m had been allocated in the 2017 budget for constitutional reform. With half of the year almost finished there is no sign from the Prime Minister’s office of any consultations beginning.
Jordan had said “Mr. Speaker, the Constitution of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana is the bedrock of governance and serves to secure the fundamental rights and establish the rule of law for all Guyanese. Therefore, in a young democratic society such as ours that is still evolving, constitutional and parliamentary reforms will continue to attract the attention of this Administration.
“In the new year, the Government will work assiduously to accelerate the constitutional reform process. In this regard, an administrative secretariat will be established to manage the reform process and support the consultations, which are scheduled to begin in 2017. Consistent with the broad tenets of participatory democracy, the Constitutional Reform Commission will hold consultations in all ten administrative regions. Over one hundred communities will be engaged in consultations and hearings and the entire process is expected to last for at least two years. A sum of $80 million has been set aside for this process, in 2017”.
The Guyana Human Rights Association, while welcoming the UN systems experts in February, said it was discouraged by government’s seeming ambivalence to constitutional reform and expressed the hope that domestic interest in the issue would be revitalized.
The Carter Center in collaboration with the UK High Commission in Guyana held a public symposium on the country’s constitutional reform process on March 31. Despite much talk and expressions of concern about the current state of the constitution, the attendance was not as big as expected. Very few youth turned up at the forum which was held at the University of Guyana’s Turkeyen campus. There was no senior member of the APNU+AFC government present at this event.