Con­sti­tu­tional re­form

Stabroek News Sunday - - REGIONAL NEWS -

Last week, Sun­day colum­nist Ralph Ramkar­ran un­der the cap­tion ‘Still time for con­sti­tu­tional re­form’ put for­ward the view that the AFC was in a po­si­tion to en­sure that the coali­tion’s man­i­festo prom­ise on con­sti­tu­tional re­form was re­al­ized. He ac­knowl­edged that it had suf­fered se­ri­ous set­backs in re­la­tion to APNU, but con­sid­ered that it still had “clout”, and that it should ex­er­cise that clout. Its min­is­ters should, he ar­gued, leave the govern­ment and sit on the back benches, and its con­tin­u­ing sup­port should be con­tin­gent on con­sti­tu­tional re­form.

“The AFC has noth­ing to lose,” he con­tended, since it was con­demned “to re­main an ap­pendage to APNU ex­er­cis­ing lit­tle or no in­de­pen­dent in­flu­ence.” The last-named party was in no doubt that the AFC was so weak­ened, he went on to say, that it thought its part­ner could safely be dis­carded for the lo­cal govern­ment elec­tions.

And what would re­deem the AFC? Mr Ramkar­ran had this in re­sponse: “The only course likely to sus­tain the AFC as a re­spected, if not vi­able po­lit­i­cal force, is to se­cure con­sti­tu­tional re­form for the Guyanese peo­ple. In ad­di­tion, his­tory will recog­nise this ser­vice to the Guyanese peo­ple. Its fail­ure to do so will be held to be its fail­ure to the Guyanese peo­ple.”

Where his sec­ond point is con­cerned, one can only re­mark that the nei­ther the AFC party, nor its par­lia­men­tary mem­bers have ever given their con­stituency or any­one else, for that mat­ter, the im­pres­sion that they are im­bued with a sense of his­tory, and would like to in­scribe the AFC name in the an­nals of our past as hav­ing cut the Gor­dian knot. In con­trast, one sus­pects from their ac­tions that some of their min­is­ters in the cur­rent cir­cum­stances have less noble ob­jec­tives for oc­cu­py­ing the lo­cal po­lit­i­cal space, un­con­nected to the party’s po­ten­tial his­tor­i­cal legacy.

Leav­ing aside the fact that AFC min­is­ters do not ap­pear to have chal­lenged their APNU coun­ter­parts when they awarded them­selves the in­fa­mous pay rise af­ter first com­ing into of­fice, or that they have failed to chal­lenge their coali­tion part­ner on any sig­nif­i­cant is­sue, more espe­cially one of prin­ci­ple, it has to be said that some of them, at least, ap­pear to en­joy the ex­er­cise of power. In other words, power and its as­so­ci­ated perks have proved as se­duc­tive for the AFC as it has for the two en­trenched par­ties.

Take Prime Min­is­ter Moses Nag­amootoo, for ex­am­ple: Given his trans­fer out of his tra­di­tional party and the fact he is of a gen­er­a­tion which will pre­vent him from re­vers­ing course, he has reached the apoth­e­o­sis of his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. He will never be pres­i­dent, and he is prime min­is­ter within the con­text of the AFC and cour­tesy of APNU. It is hard to imag­ine him – not to men­tion some of his fel­low min­is­ters from his party – cast­ing them­selves in a rare po­lit­i­cal drama, and

va­cat­ing their chairs in the cabi­net room and in­stalling them­selves on the back benches. This would be espe­cially so in a case where a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple was in­volved whose only re­ward might be ku­dos in the his­tory books.

This is not to say that AFC mem­bers of govern­ment have not had some­thing to say on the mat­ter. Leader of the party, Raphael Trot­man in an­swer to a ques­tion was re­ported as re­mark­ing in April this year that the Con­sti­tu­tion Re­form Con­sul­ta­tive Com­mis­sion was still a pri­or­ity for the AFC. The fol­low­ing month Pub­lic Se­cu­rity Min­is­ter Khem­raj Ram­jat­tan echoed the sen­ti­ment about con­sti­tu­tional re­form be­ing a pri­or­ity for the party – a ma­jor one, was his de­scrip­tion – also com­ment­ing that he thought the re­form process could be com­pleted be­fore the next gen­eral elec­tion. All this is fine; it is just that opin­ion and ac­tion are not in tan­dem.

Prime Min­is­ter Nag­amootoo has also spo­ken in sup­port of con­sti­tu­tion re­form ed­u­ca­tion dur­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion at the Univer­sity of Guyana, but he has not chal­lenged APNU on the mat­ter.

Of course it is per­fectly true, as Mr Ramkar­ran stated, that the govern­ment, its coali­tion man­i­festo notwith­stand­ing, has no in­ter­est in con­sti­tu­tional re­form. There has been a great deal of sup­posed ac­tiv­ity in re­la­tion to the mat­ter, with, among var­i­ous other things, a Steer­ing Com­mit­tee on Con­sti-tu­tional Re­form be­ing set up un­der the chair­man­ship of Nigel Hughes in 2015 – never mind that this coun­try’s Con­sti­tu­tion pro­vides for a per­ma­nent Par­lia­men­tary Stand­ing Com­mit­tee – which re­ported in April of the fol­low­ing year; a UN team to in­ves­ti­gate and ad­vise; sym­posia at Turkeyen and Tain with as­sis­tance from the Carter Cen­ter and the Bri­tish High Com­mis­sion; the set­ting aside of $80 mil­lion in the bud­get by Fi­nance Min­is­ter Win­ston Jor­dan to ac­cel­er­ate the con­sti­tu­tional re­form process and es­tab­lish a sec­re­tariat for a Com­mis­sion; and the sub­mis­sion of the Hughes re­port to a Par­lia­men­tary Stand­ing Com­mit­tee, fol­low­ing which a Bill on the Con­sti­tu­tional Re­form Con­sulta-tive Com­mit­tee was sup­posed to be passed and as­sented to. Mr Nag­amootoo is to head the Com­mis-sion, and the Bill went to Stand­ing Com­mit­tee last year. The best that any­one knows, as of ear­lier this year the Bill

was mired in Cabi­net.

As for Pres­i­dent Granger him­self, he ap­pears to be in make-haste-slowly mode. Ear­lier he was quoted as say­ing “I don’t want board­room con­sti­tu­tional re­form; I want pub­lic dis­cus­sion.” There has never been any sug­ges­tion that pub­lic dis­cus­sion would not be in­volved; it was be­fore. How­ever, if he be­lieves ‘board­room’ dis­cus­sion can be ex­cised from the process, he is mis­taken. Con­sti­tu­tions must have a le­gal and philo­soph­i­cal frame­work, which can­not be sup­plied by patch­ing to­gether dis­parate el­e­ments from any num­ber of pub­lic sources. In ad­di­tion to that they must have an in­ter­nal co­her­ence. It is im­pos­si­ble to be­lieve he is not aware of that, so that one is tempted to wonder whether he sees pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion as a pos­si­ble de­lay­ing tac­tic.

The truth of the mat­ter is that the two ma­jor par­ties are not in­ter­ested in con­sti­tu­tional re­form. For the most part, the up­per ech­e­lons of the big par­ties are trans­fixed by the pos­si­bil­ity of power, espe­cially pres­i­den­tial power, which the re­form­ers have their eyes on curb­ing. And that ap­plies as much to the PPP/C as it does to the PNCR. Even Pres­i­dent Cheddi Ja­gan when he came to of­fice sud­denly had no in­ter­est in re­form­ing the con­sti­tu­tion or trun­cat­ing the Pres­i­dent’s power, con­trary to what he had been say­ing when the PNC was in of­fice.

As for the PPP, it had 23 years to in­sti­tute re­form but made no move; its po­si­tion now is a re­flec­tion of the fact it is in op­po­si­tion.

And then there is the con­stituency base on both sides. Even that base may have lit­tle in­ter­est in re­form, in­clud­ing pres­i­den­tial re­form. They want a pres­i­dent from their own party who has enough power to rep­re­sent their in­ter­ests, and not be fet­tered by con­sti­tu­tional chains which might favour an op­po­si­tion. In other words one has the un­com­fort­able feel­ing that the more dis­cern­ing mem­ber­ship on ei­ther side is far from be­ing in a ma­jor­ity.

At the rate the par­ties are go­ing and with­out ac­tion on the part of the AFC, it could even be there will not be enough time for thought­ful con­sti­tu­tional re­form on a larger scale, although with a bit of will, cer­tain iso­lated changes could be made, such as mak­ing it pos­si­ble for coali­tions to be formed af­ter an elec­tion. The ques­tion is: Is the will there?

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