No harm would have been done in giving the public time to study the NRF Act 2021
References are made to your editorial (Dec 28), Page One Comment (Dec 30), and letters (Dec 28, 29, 30). I did not pay much heed to the NRF Act passed by the preceding coalition government. That legislation was passed after the government lost a No Confidence Motion on December 21, 2018. It is my view that the legislation, whether good or bad, was unconstitutional, similar to the constitution that arose out of the rigged referendum of July 1978. In parliamentary democracies, when a government loses a no confidence motion, the life of parliament ends. New elections are called. No bill or unfinished business can be taken up. The government resigns and new elections are scheduled. That is the practice internationally, including in the Caribbean. But in Guyana, the Coalition violated the sanctity of constitutional, parliamentary, and electoral democracy by holding parliament, introducing bills, and debating and passing legislation after it lost a no confidence motion. Those legislative acts could not, and should not be considered as constitutional, especially that two thirds of the parliament did not agree to the recall of parliament, as required by the Burnham constitution. Be that as it may, aspects of the legislation have been retained in the new NRF Act.
Local content (oil and gas development) and resource fund (proceeds from oil and gas) legislation are long overdue from the President Ali administration. If anything, the government should be criticized for moving too slowly on this front. Thus, I applaud the government for establishing legislative policies in both areas. The government is critiqued (in your Editorial, Page One Comment, and in Letters) for rushing the proposed laws or bills through parliament, and giving itself majority control of oversight committee of the fund. Perhaps the government should have given the public some more time to study the proposed law. No harm is done in giving the public time for deeper studies. But my recollection is the Coalition hardly gave any time to the then opposition or the public to study its NRF bill. And didn’t the Coalition legislation also give government majority control over the NRF in the bill it passed in parliament post No Confidence Motion? And isn’t the new NRF bill simply a correction of some of the flaws of the Coalition’s legislation?
The Guyana constitution empowers the government, whether controlled by PPP or PNC or a coalition, through majority control in policy making. The constitution allows the government to make appointments to various commissions and agencies. The majority selects the Chair. It is the law.
The law of majority control in NRF can only be changed if there is support for an entity free of government control, as say in Norway, as an example. The coalition had an opportunity to pass such legislation before the NCM in December. It failed to do so for self-serving reasons. As I read from your reports, the NRF Act permits appointments to the oversight committee by other constitutional bodies as well as from civil society. As I understand the new NRF legislation from your reports, it is really an amended Act of the coalition’s legislation. And it seems like it is an improved version. It appears there is more transparency than the coalition’s. It removes certain powers from the Minister. Also, Parliament has the last say on how much money will be withdrawn from the fund. Money can only be used for infrastructure and only when there is an emergency. Emergencies are largely naturally occurring. A government cannot create an emergency. Also, appointees have to be qualified in the field to be on the oversight committee. The legislation makes everyone on the oversight committee accountable. There are also penalties for violations of the clauses of the legislation. If there is violation, they can be prosecuted. I note that under the Coalition, some US$18M was hidden from the public and from parliament. No one was held accountable for it. The Ministers of Finance, Natural Resources, Foreign Affairs, Attorney General, etc. all said they knew nothing about the US$18 M when SN made it public and queried them. They were all privy to the information that they hid the money from the public. Under the new law, such behaviour would lead to prosecution of those culpable in such secrecy and lies.
The new NRF Act also mandates that figures relating to oil flow would continue to be released by Central Bank for public knowledge. Overall, it seems, from reading reports, that there is greater independence, transparency, and accountability under the new NRF legislation. But as we say in Guyana, ultimately the proof of the goodness of the pudding is in the tasting. We will know over time whether it is a good legislative act. We have to monitor it and ensure government as well as opposition abides by it. Civil Society and media must work together to hold government and opposition accountable. To assess the legislation, we will also have to look at responses from international institutions. The IMF and IDB were critical of the previous NRF legislation as it did not go far enough to protect against abuses of the fund. The NRF legislation builds on criticisms and critiques. We have to wait for the views of IMF, World Bank, and IDB on this new NRF Act and address weaknesses identified.
Sincerely, Vishnu Bisram