ONE OF THE MOST ADVANCED CONSTITUTIONS IN THE REGION


The statement captioning this article was made by the President of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), the Hon. Justice Adrian Saunders, at the recent Bar Dinner. He mentioned the process of constitution reform that took place in 1999-2000 which resulted in many recommendations that were implemented in 2001. I have written about this before, but a reminder would be useful.

The PPP/C had promised constitution reform prior to 1992. One main objective was to reform the 1980 Constitution which did not have a democratic imprimatur, having been birthed by a rigged referendum and a rigged Constituent Assembly, which was the converted National Assembly spawned by the 1973 elections that gave the PNC a rigged two-thirds majority. The 1980 Constitution had little national support and the public chaffed at the powers of the President. Also, prior to 1992, a major objective of the PPP was shared governance. Constitutional reform commenced late in the Government’s 1992 term of office through a Select Committee of the National Assembly. Time ran out.

The period immediately after the 1997 elections saw extensive street demonstrations which ended with the Herdmanston Accord. It provided, inter alia, for a reduced term of office of the Janet Jagan Government and constitutional reform. The PNC had advocated no burning desire for constitutional change while the PPP’s priorities had switched to the challenging economic issues, IMF conditionalities and debt reduction. The idea may have originated with the Caricom ‘three wise men’ – Shridath Ramphal, Alister McIntyre and Henry Forde.

The Herdmanston Accord constitution reform process was legislatively effectuated by the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC) Act comprising five representatives of the PPP, three for the PNC, one from the UF, one from the Alliance for Guyana and one each representing farmers, private sector, indigenous people, women, youth, Bar Association, the labour movement and the Hindu, Christian and Muslim religious bodies. There was much interest in the process this time around because the post-election violence of 1997, which together with an extensive Public Service Union strike in 1998, had shaken the Government, created wide unease and revived interest in shared governance. A vocal group oy younger leaders in the PNC was publicly advocating it.

The hearings of the CRC were widely reported in the media. Evidence was taken publicly by numerous persons and groups; teams from the CRC travelled across the country, including the hinterland, receiving evidence from a wide cross-section of Guyanese; evidence was given and papers received by foreign and local experts. 4,000 plus submissions were received.

The PPP had cooled on shared governance and, while members of the PNC gave evidence supporting shared governance, the official PNC did not. Influential members of the CRC supported shared governance and urged that a constitutional mechanism be provided for it. However, it failed to attract majority support and the CRC agreed to the consolation prize of inclusive governance. Starting with Article 13 which enshrined the principle by its opening words – “The principal objective of the political system of the State is to establish an inclusionary democracy…” – the Constitution goes on to provide an array of mechanisms to entrench inclusion. These include five parliamentary standing committees on the following subjects, namely, constitutional reform, natural resources, economic services, social services and foreign relations. The chairs and deputy chairs are from the Government and Opposition and they rotate annually. A Parliamentary Management Committee with equal representation by Government and Opposition, chaired by the Speaker with no vote, was provided for by the Standing Orders.

The amendments to the Constitution based on the recommendations of the CRC provide for the following commissions: Ethnic Relations, Human Rights, Women and Gender Equality, Indigenous Peoples and Rights of the Child. Their functions, a secretariat and tribunals are provided for in the Constitution. A unified secretariat, with representatives for each body as provided for, properly staffed and equipped, has never been established. The Human Rights Commission is yet to be established, more than twenty years later. Not a peep has been heard from the Opposition or civil society about this egregious omission.

No governing or opposition politician or civil society activist can complain when exasperation is declared by the public, or when dire consequences are predicted because of ethno-political dominance, or frustration is declared because of an unresponsive political system, when very little effort is made by both Government and Opposition to have these bodies functioning optimally, or at all. Parliamentary committees cannot function effectively with part time MPs, who must have full time jobs to make ends meet, little staff and no research assistants. Government agencies cannot be effectively required to produce documents and to answer questions about the matters Mr. Norton is concerned and wants to raise with the President. Constitutional Commissions cannot be expected to function if they do not exist, or if they are not properly staffed and resourced. The issues of concern that the Leader of the Opposition would like to discuss with the President can be more effectively addressed in a Parliamentary Committee and when public attention is drawn to them, you bet that the President will pay attention.

The tools for inclusive governance have been handed to the nation on a platter. Neither the Government nor the Opposition, particularly the latter, has made use of them.

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