(by The Honourable Speaker of the National Assembly, Raphael Trotman)
With the introduction of a Motion of No-Confidence against the Government by the smaller Opposition Party in the National Assembly, the Alliance for Change, the likelihood of an early election and shortened parliamentary term seems very real. What this spells out is that the possibility of the 10th Parliament being a “Parliament of compromise” is now so slim as to be considered impossible. The prevailing view is that our democracy is in trouble. One anonymous contributor in a letter to the Editor, Stabroek News dated July 5th, 2014 aptly sums it up in these poignant words:
One wonders who is really pulling the country into the cesspool, be it the government or the opposition. Many would venture to point to both sides of the House as the culprits. This kind of brinkmanship and immature behaviour must come to an end. No one seems to listen any more: the cries for vengeance, to get-even and the self-righteousness in our politics show the level of civility and patriotism.
The impasse in finding consensus to pass the critically important Bills and Motions, especially the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism Bill (AMLCFT), something for which we will all pay a heavy price, has brought into sharp focus the need to have a re-designing of the role and responsibility of the National Assembly. The question is asked whether it is meant to be just a place of voting “yes” or “no” or whether it is meant to be the place where compromises can be arrived at in the country’s best interest.
The Parliament of Guyana cannot continue in its traditional role of just having a Government and Opposition. The results of the last election and the socio-economic make-up of our country demand a different form of governance.
How can we do this? The last round of constitutional reform created the mechanism that we have since failed to firmly grip. Though we stalled, it is not too late. Article 13 of the reformed Constitution succinctly sets out the form of governance we should pursue:
The principal objective of the political system of the State is to establish an inclusionary democracy by providing increasing opportunities for the participation of citizens, and their organisations in the management and decision-making processes of the State, with particular emphasis on those areas of decision-making that affect their well-being.
Interestingly, Article 51 of the Constitution presents the very structure in which this inclusivity should take place.
There shall be a Parliament of Guyana, which shall consist of the President and the National Assembly.
Together, these two institutions, not one, make up the Parliament, and are not mutually exclusive of each other, but rather, mutually inclusive. Compromise is expected not only between the political parties, but also between the National Assembly and the Office of the President.
Lastly, Article 65 (1) of the Constitution completes the triad of constitutional fundamentals upon which inclusive governance must be inspired as it sets out the mandate of a properly functioning and inclusionary parliament in this way:
Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, Parliament may make laws for the peace, order and good government of Guyana (Emphasis added).
On the 28th of November 2011, the people of Guyana deliberately, and with great expectation, designed a Parliament that was supposed to live out the true meaning of Articles of 13, 51, and 65.
Unfortunately, we have not fully grasped the significance of what was delivered into our hands; and neither have we grasped the almost limitless opportunities that have presented themselves for unprecedented national cohesion and development.
Instead, we have become mired in blame-throwing and the practice and perpetuation of zero-sum politics. It is a cliché to state, yet still worthy of repetition, that Guyana can never be developed by one man or woman, one ethnic group, or one political party. We have to venture into a more entrenched and delineated form of inclusive governance.
Democracy is generally defined as government for the people and by the people – the place where government is given legitimacy is by the consent of the people. It is the system of governance that was bequeathed to us at our independent birth and the one we have chosen to continue to foster and live by. It is certainly not perfect. In fact Winston Churchill once remarked that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
Generally, we look for four characteristics, or features, as evidence of the presence of democracy:
- A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections.
- The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life.
- Protection of the human rights of all citizens.
- A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.
The Westminster-Whitehall model of democracy that we practice dictates that there should be a combination of legislative and executive power in the hands of the governing party. Usually, the Government is drawn from the Party that commands a majority in the lower House of Parliament and is entitled to form the government; hence, majority rule.
Paradoxically, it is in this most endearing feature of Westminster democracy that is to be found its greatest handicap. The fact that the Opposition is to remain ‘loyal” and to “oppose” and to wait its turn to become the Government, is actually quite antithetical and counter-productive to the achievement of good governance and democracy. In small countries such as ours, this dysfunction grows exponentially as literally a few wield most of the power. When we over-lay the Westminster model with issues of race and ethnicity, and socio-economic woes, the dysfunction grows disastrous.
We must accept that the concept of Her Majesty’s loyal Government and loyal Opposition are not naturally occurring in our jurisdictions where loyalty is to the people and to the written constitutions we have all enacted. Yet, without excellent reasons for doing so, we continue to try to keep our parliamentary practice as closely aligned to the House of Commons as possible.
While we try to remain faithful and true to the Westminster system, ironically, the country that gave us Westminster, has moved on and reformed itself way beyond what we received in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Monarchy and Government are both less strong, as Parliament has grown in strength and stature.
In Barbados, recently, during the observances of the 375th anniversary of the House of Assembly and Senate, the Hon. Speaker, Michael Carrington, bemoaned the fact that the Westminster system has lost its flavour and in fact is becoming poisonous. In his words, Carrington’s view is that the system “appeared to pit government and Opposition inexorably against each other in aggressive contentious and ofttimes seemingly unnecessary confrontation” as stated in Barbados Nation – June 30, 2014
There must be a paradigm shift in the way we think, behave and respond to each other. It is a tragedy that the good work built up by one government is simply washed away when replaced by another. We are building and breaking at the same time. This is happening not only when government changes hands, but also daily as witnessed in the fights that erupt over any and every issue – only the unwise and uncivilised do so.
Long-term and sustained planning and development become very difficult in these circumstances. Therefore, meaningful steps have to be taken to ensure that stakeholders in government and civil society are given a voice on a continuous basis whilst recognising, and upholding the basic tenet that governments must be free to govern; subject to and circumscribed by the provisions of the Constitution and the values of the society.
In concluding, I offer some recommendations that can be implemented easily:
- There should be permanent and structured inter-party dialogue;
- The unfinished process of constitutional reform that began in 1999 must be completed;
- The National Development Strategy (NDS) should be reviewed, updated and agreed in the National Assembly;
- Civil society must add its voice to help to change the tone and posture of the practice of politics; whilst understanding that space will not be easily ceded to civil society so it has to be fought for;
- Those of us who have entered into the world of politics must work to restore the honour and dignity of high office, and by extension, regain the required levels of trust, credibility and legitimacy; a think tank can be established to push this idea
- A national or regional training centre/academy/institute should be established for leaders in public service; not just for politicians but more importantly, for the officials who have to make the system work. (there is too much randomness, bias, ignorance, happenstance, and uncertainty in the decision-making processes);
- Political Parties have to accept that today Guyana rests on a four-legged stool – PPP/C, APNU, AFC, and Civil Society. (We can’t live to destroy each other but learn to work with each other as a house, nation, kingdom, family, and parliament divided against itself cannot stand).
We have to reorganise our Parliament; not just for now, but for all time.
Raphael Trotman has been the Speaker of the National Assembly since 2012 following the November 2011 General Elections left the then elected People’s Progressive Party with a minority government and the combined Opposition with a one seat majority in the House.