THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING HANSARDS
Despite its many failings, and at times its often raucous discussions, the Parliament of Guyana can evoke colorful and memorable performances.
During the Budget debate, for example, it was obvious who the government side of the House was targeting. One government Minister got up and described reading some of the Budgets of the latter days of the PNC regime as to reading a death announcement.
If those Budgets could have been described as death announcements, then the public administration of that period was like a wake house. There was widespread ineptness, gross incompetence, extreme prevarication and deep-seated sloth. As the country’s finances worsened, resources for proper administration dried up and with this came a decay of public institutions.
Sadly, the work of Parliament was not exempted from this decadence. The physical condition of Parliament Buildings was not of its best. In later years, major works of the building would have to be undertaken and these works ironically are now being blamed for the destruction of transcripts of the proceedings of the House.
These records of the sittings of the National Assembly when transcribed in the Hansard, represent the official public record of the proceeds of the House. But the production of the Hansards fell victim of the ongoing malaise in the country at the time.
Cheddi Jagan, who had taken his fight for democratic and social liberation into the halls of an unrepresentative Parliament, understood the importance of historical record. He himself had benefitted from the colonial authorities’ attentiveness to and scrupulous record-keeping and he was able to write his own narrative of the country’s political history by sourcing the existing Hansard, including those of his own presentations in the Legislative Council.
However, the publication of the Hansard went into decline under the PNC. And so when Cheddi returned to power in 1992, and recognizing the importance of recording and publishing the Hansard, one of his first acts was to arrange with the British government to have the Hansard published.
It is therefore surprising that no one with the institutional memory of the past 20 years pointed out that it was the PPP’s return to political office in 1992 that restarted the process of the publication of the Hansard. The publication was reportedly contracted out to a private firm when the PPP took office.
In 1996, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs did an assessment of Guyana’s parliamentary library and its findings revealed that the Hansard was not published from 1963 right through to the date of the report. This would mean that while there were written records of the proceedings of the National Assembly, these were never transcribed for printing.
It was therefore surprising that there should have been a call for the Hansard for the Hoyte era to be produced. At least from the report of the NDI consultants, no such records had been transcribed up to 1996.
Most of the records of Parliament, including Hansards dating back to 1800, were located in the loft but were so damaged through neglect that they were incapable of being preserved even with modern technology. This was an example of the state of neglect that had existed for years and which resulted in the loss of irreplaceable archival material.
The un-transcribed notes of the record of the Assembly’s proceeding from 1963 to 1996 were said to be located in the back room of the Reportorial Section. But the report observed that poor storage and ravages of time had taken their toll on 30 years of records, all of which, the authors noted, were liable to be lost unless catalogued and protected.
Ironically, the report noted that the only office in Parliament with modern facilities was the Reportial Section, which dealt with transcribing the Hansards. However, the report of the experts noted that the staff complained that their work is hampered by technical problems.
From all accounts, it does seem as if those records or at least those relating to the Hoyte era have indeed been lost forever. But the loss of archival material goes much deeper: there is almost a certain loss of the older historical records dating back as far as 1800. It is the loss of those historic records that is most painful because Guyana has lost important accounts of its history in its formative years.
There may be ways obtaining information on what prevailed during the period 1985-1992. The memory of persons who were around during that long wake can be tapped and the newspapers can provide some reports of some of the debates. But when it comes to the British Hansards, we may have to hope that England which takes pride in its record keeping may have copies of those records.
The mystery of the missing Hansard from 1985 1992 has been solved. There were never any printed Hansards for the period and the transcripts of the sittings were damaged and cannot now be retrieved.