Twenty-six months after it took office and following breaches of its manifesto commitments, the APNU+ AFC government yesterday took a key step towards constitutional reform by tabling a bill for a consultative commission.
The Constitutional Reform Consultative Commission Bill 2017 was read a first time by Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo. Support from the opposition for it is seen as vital to the process moving ahead.
According to the explanatory memorandum, the bill is aimed at reforming the charter so that it is more inclusive, democratic and transparent.
Clause four of the bill says that the Commission shall be composed of 15 persons including constitutional experts, a retired judge, a law tutor, nominees from each of the parliamentary parties and nominees from other groups including the trade union movement, the Guyana Bar Association and the Toshaos’ Council.
Clause Five sets the terms of reference of the commission as assisting the Standing Committee on Constitutional Reform in its review of the effectiveness of the working of the constitution and for that purpose, it is to conduct public consultations throughout the country. Having received, considered and the evaluated the submissions, the Commission shall forward its recommendations and the results of its consultations to the Standing Committee for its review and consideration. Clause Five further states that the Standing Committee shall submit a final report to the National Assembly for its approval. “In assisting the Standing Committee in the Committee’s review of the constitution, the Commission shall take a number of factors into consideration”, the most important being the scope of constitutional reform necessary for more inclusive, democratic and transparent governance, Clause Five further said.
Clause 12 establishes a secretariat headed by the secretary while Clause 13 caters for the engagement of experts. Clause 14 provides for the funding of the Commission. This clause says that the funds of the commission shall be: sums assigned from the Consolidated Fund and other sums garnered via donations or contributions from international agencies.
The government has come under severe criticism for the slow pace towards constitutional reform. In its manifesto for the 2015 general elections, APNU+AFC had said that within three months of taking office it 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. This did not happen.
Instead, it appointed the Steering Committee on Constitutional Reform (SCCR) in September 2015. The SCCR submitted a report to the government on April 30, 2016. This report was not released to the public though it was reported on by this newspaper.
The government also invited a team from the United Nations system to evaluate the conditions for constitutional reform among other areas. The UN experts produced a report which was also not circulated by the government but was reported on by Stabroek News.
That UN report identified the bill tabled yesterday as a key test of whether bipartisan support for constitution reform truly exists.
“If it passes by one vote along party lines that will be a worrying sign for the process going forward,” the report stated before advising that consultation, negotiation, and compromise on the bill at the earliest stages will be critical to its unanimous passage in the National Assembly.
The team, which visited Guyana in February, was tasked with advising on opportunities, risks, and considerations for UN constitutional support to the Government of Guyana and other stakeholders, including advice on possible programmatic support by the UN.
Following their consultations with various stakeholders, the team submitted the report to Nagamootoo, in which it identified the powers of the president, the impact of the limited oversight powers of the National Assembly, and vertical control of party leadership over MPs and checks and balances among the branches of government as being among the areas that were raised most during its interviews. It said too that several electoral issues were identified as needing reform, such as the closed list Proportional Representation system, which in the view of many makes MPs accountable to their party instead of constituents. It said too that the provision allowing the party leader to dismiss and replace sitting MPs undermines the effectiveness of the Parliament as a checking mechanism and an institution that represents the people.
The team argued that the process of constitutional reform can provide not just an opportunity to improve governance and accountability but also an opportunity for nation building, stronger social cohesion, civic education and citizen engagement.
At the same time, it acknowledges that the reform process could fail to deliver meaningful changes due to a lack of support from either the government or opposition party, or both. It noted that the 1999-2001 reform process resulted in numerous constitutional amendments – passed with bi-partisan support – but none of which addressed “the infirmities related to executive power and lack of accountability to the people.” As a result, it said there is risk that in a new process both parties might agree to constitutional reform “at the margins,” but in the end fail to pass any of the most needed amendments, thereby maintaining the status quo.