PM can push constitutional reform – Ramkarran

Ralph Ramkarran

Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo has the power to push constitutional reform to the forefront of government business in the National Assembly, according to political analyst Ralph Ramkarran who has questioned why he is not doing so.

“…Prime Minister Nagamootoo is not powerless. Under the Constitution of Guyana, he is the Leader of Government Business in the National Assembly. If a Bill in his name is before the Standing Committee for Constitutional Re-form, and there is delay in considering it, he cannot pass the buck. He cannot blame the Committee. As Prime Minister and Leader of Government Business, he has the authority to direct AG Basil Williams to convene a meeting of the Committee to consider the Bill. If he needs help, the Prime Minister can invoke the assistance of the Cabinet or of the President. If the Prime Minister is unwilling to take such steps, he has to take responsibility, rather than appealing to the public for understanding,” Ramkarran wrote in his weekly ‘The Conversation Tree’ column in the Sunday Stabroek.

The former Speaker of the National Assembly again questioned why the government has failed to proceed with constitutional reform to implement the proposals contained in its manifesto for the 2015 general elections. He noted that according to Nagamootoo, the blame for the delay lies at the feet of the Parliamentary Standing Committee for Constitutional Reform.

Ramkarran noted that Nagamootoo has said that a draft Constitution Reform Bill has been before the Committee but that the Committee has yet to consider it. Members of the committee are Basil Williams, Khemraj Ramjattan, Raphael Trotman, Nicolette Henry, Rupert Roopnaraine, Adrian Anamayah, Priya Manickchand and Anil Nandlall.

Ramkarran pointed out that there are no special rules for the convening of parliamentary committee meetings and no special sanctions for not doing so. The Chair, at his or her own volition, could request the Clerk to convene a meeting. But he or she would usually do so after consultation with all or most members of the committee. If any member of a committee feels that a meeting is necessary, there is nothing to stop the member from requesting the Chair to convene a meeting, he wrote.

The former House Speaker observed that no member has apparently requested the Chair, AG Basil Williams, to convene a meeting of the Committee to discuss the Constitution Reform Commission Bill.

“The failure of the Standing Committee to conclude its consideration of the Bill, which it has had since July 2017, when it was tabled in the National Assembly and had its first reading, suggests that the Parliament’s business, and hence that of the nation, is being neglected, or worse, being hindered, by the Committee,” he asserted.

According to the former Speaker, Nagamootoo can exercise his power to push the Bill forward. “The Standing Committee, having failed to address the Bill, the Prime Minister can request the National Assembly to proceed with consideration and passing of the Bill at a Second Reading. There is no rule or practice that requires a Bill to be considered by a Standing Committee prior to it being debated in the National Assembly. And there is no rule that prevents the Prime Minister to request the Second Reading of the Bill,” he said.

Ramkarran pointed out that Nagamootoo has not explained why, with the Committee having failed to consider the Bill, he has in turn neglected to exercise his power and authority to push the Bill along the parliamentary process.

Inclusive

“If the Prime Minister and the Government considered constitutional reform, leading to inclusive governance, to be an important matter, they would have caused the Bill to be tabled in the National Assembly long ago and not allow the Standing Committee to upend the parliamentary process, embarrass the Prime Minister, derail APNU+AFC’s election promises and delay progress,” he declared.

According to Ramkarran, the Guyanese public is accustomed to the fierce partisan disputes between the political parties in our adversarial political system.

“On this matter, however, there appears to be an uncommon unity. APNU+AFC and the PPP are represented in the Standing Committee for Constitutional Reform. No movement in this Commit-tee in relation to the Constitution Reform Bill suggests that all the parties, including APNU+AFC, are either united in delaying the Bill and embarrassing the Prime Minister and Government. And this state of affairs persists despite a similar, earlier, explanation by the Prime Minister,” he observed.

“Should the public now conclude that both APNU+AFC and the PPP are now united in their opposition to progress on the Bill and hence to constitutional reform,” he asked.

On July 27 last year, twenty-six months after it took office and following breaches of its manifesto commitments, the APNU+ AFC government took a key step towards constitutional reform by tabling a bill for a consultative commission. Not much has happened since.

The Constitutional Reform Consultative Commission Bill 2017 was read a first time on July 27, 2017 by Nagamootoo. 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.

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.

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