This year, October 5, marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first free and fair elections in Guyana since independence in 1966. It ushered in a new era for our country. For the first time an independent Guyana elected a government of the people’s choice. A truly people’s government.
The People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and its leader Cheddi Jagan, always argued that it was not possible to have sustained social and economic development without political democracy. It had now created those conditions after the Guyanese people, with the solidarity of the international community, wrestled free and fair elections from the PNC dictatorship.
Free and fair elections alone are the basis, the foundation of a democratic society. One of the characteristics of the PPP/Civic government was that it consulted with our people every step of the way and it built a good functioning superstructure on that basis. It was in this early period that our Constitution was re-worked. It was a massive undertaking during which the Constitutional Commission travelled to every nook and cranny taking evidence so that we could have a Constitution that reflected the true wishes of our people. It was a totally inclusive process. A people’s Constitution was fashioned out of that process.
More than two hundred changes were made. Most of those changes saw the power of the President being reduced, while the authority of the Parliament was enhanced. The Constitution really encourages the involvement of the whole society. The Leader of the Opposition had his/her power also enhanced. The appointments of many constitutional positions must be done with consultation and, in the case of the judiciary, appointments must have the agreement of that office. This was a massive change from the PNC days in government when the President decided these matters by himself, often without consultations or when consultations were a mere formality.
In passing let me say that unfortunately the PNC/APNU opposition used this new authority given to it in a very irresponsible manner. The most glaring was the successive refusal of many PNC leaders in the opposition to confirm the appointments of a Chancellor and Chief Justice. Without any reason, they stubbornly refused to have the Carl Singh and Ian Chang appointments confirmed.
The National Assembly, for the first time, became a forum for constructive debate and discussion. Members were involved in all the work of the Assembly. Members of Parliament were not restricted in their speeches; instead they had their time extended to complete their presentations without hindrance. Parliamentary Standing Committees in several important areas of national life were established. The PPP/C administration went so far as to ensure that the opposition party and the government chaired these bodies on a rotational basis.
This happens nowhere in the Caribbean and in very few places in the Commonwealth. Even in the US which is often upheld as an example, when the majority changes in the Congress, every single committee heads changes with the majority.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which was not functioning before 1992 ‒ indeed the last report sent to the National Assembly before then was in 1982 ‒ became one of the most vibrant committees in the Assembly since October 5, 1992. Moreover, the powers of that body were also strengthened by its increased role in the appointment of the Auditor General. During the PPP/Civic period in office the Ministry of Finance produced a Treasury Memorandum stating the steps the government would take to address the findings of the Auditor General’s reports. For the first time we have had true accountability of public funds.
The National Assembly was and is the medium used to appoint personnel to the several Rights Commissions that were established by the PPP/C government. Among these are the Integrity Commission, the Ethnic Relations Commission, the Rights of the Child Commission, the Indigenous Peoples Commission and many others. For the first time, Special Select Committees were used extensively to deal with important complex legislation. It was also used to involve the public in the work of the Assembly.
For the first time in our history, the Amerindian People had their rights respected. They also participated fully in the management of their own affairs and in public life generally. The Amerindian Act has given that historically oppressed community protection in relation to their lands and the resources found in their communities. It has become a model for the world; the rights enjoyed by our Amerindian community are still being struggled for in different parts of the world.
Industrial democracy took a major step forward. The Labour Relations Bill, which was first put to our Parliament in 1953, put again in1963, was finally passed in our Parliament in 1998 as the Trades Union Recognition Bill. This law allows workers to decide which union they would want to represent them in the case of a dispute. In 1953, our Constitution was suspended to prevent this Bill from being passed, among other reasons. In 1963, democratization was opposed by the Trade Union Congress (TUC)! Moreover, the TUC was used for CIA intervention and the financing of riots in our country.
Our business community also thrived. Many tax measures, including the Consumption Tax, were removed and replaced with a Value Added Tax. Investments were being encouraged and facilitated and our private sector grew in numbers and in strength. One of the first acts of the PPP/C administration was to level the playing field as far as concessions were concerned. Before 1992, mostly foreign capital was given concessions by the PNC regime. The PPP/Civic saw that all new investments and also retooling by old local industries got the same concessions as far as that was possible. Machinery and equipment for the mining and the agricultural sectors were all given duty-free concessions. Indeed, the productive sectors enjoyed much encouragement in the form of concessions from the PPP/C administration.
Compare that with what is taking place today; you will see that the APNU+AFC regime has added more than 200 new taxes and removed many of the duty-free concessions, thus leading to the stagnation and decline. Instead of expansion, businesses are experiencing stagnation and decline. Many are closing their doors and unemployment is soaring.
Not only was our Parliament strengthened after October 5, 1992, but so too was the judiciary. Their conditions of work were greatly enhanced. The justice modernization project also helped to improve conditions greatly. Their emoluments grew considerably. The PPP/C established specialized courts to deal with matters expeditiously. The Commercial Court and the Family Court are among these. New courts and living accommodation were provided so that people in the outlying areas could get their business done as close to them as possible.
More judges were appointed to ensure justice was delivered in a timely fashion. The PPP/Civic passed laws to ensure judges gave decisions in writing early. This was done because it was observed that a lot of commercial and personal business was held up because of a lack of written decisions from judges. Judges were not writing their decisions in a timely manner. Unfortunately, many judges are not observing the law. They are still not giving timely decisions. Many ordinary people and businesses are suffering because of this. This is an area in great need of improvement. I wish to urge the judiciary to look into this matter urgently, because it could contribute to reversals in the gains made over the years.
In the implementation of these new and bold measures, mistakes would have been made. We must also consider that the PPP/Civic had to deal with a hostile opposition that opposed democratization at every step. It was an opposition that saw as its main goal the halting of social and economic progress under the PPP/C administration. This was most manifest during the last three years of the PPP/Civic government.
The PNC/APNU also had able support from a section of the private media which saw its role as destabilizing the PPP/C administration using disinformation, half-truths and lies. Donald Trump calls that fake news. It was all out to denigrate the PPP/C achievements. Despite this, October 5, 1992, will go down in history as one of the most important dates in Guyana. The years of the PPP/C in office were not only difficult due to the machinations of the PNC/APNU, they were also golden and glorious years for this country.