Our 10th Parliament will be reconvened tomorrow. It would do us all well to remember that “Parliament” consists of both the President and the National Assembly. In the first session, between January 12 and end of July the National Assembly passed, we understand, just twenty-eight bills. After their more than a two-and-a-half month recess, from the rhetoric flowing from the stakeholders, it does not appear that much will be accomplished in this much shorter two-month session.
While the usual challenge and counter challenges have emanated from the three political parties in the National Assembly, the strongest rhetoric came from a quarter that usually is at pains to remain above the fray: the Speaker of the House. The Speaker in the Parliamentary Westminster system inherited from the British is expected to remain scrupulously impartial in the contest between the parties representing the government and the Opposition.
However, responding to a statement by the Secretary to the Cabinet that President Ramotar might not assent to any Bills passed by the National Assembly that do not find favour with the government, the Speaker exclaimed: “The Office of the President is cautioned not to provoke a constitutional crisis as there is no winner in such a scenario, but rather, to respect and recognise the reality, authority and legitimacy of the 10th Parliament.”
We find this warning rather infelicitous since the Constitution is very unambiguous on the subject under contention: to wit, the assent or withholding of Presidential assent of a Bill presented by the National Assembly. Article 170 states: (1)Subject to the provisions of Article 164,the power of parliament to make laws shall be exercised by the National Assembly and assented to by the President.
(2) When a Bill is presented to the President for assent, he shall signify that he assents or withholds assent.
(3) “Where the President withholds his assent to a Bill, he returns it to the Speaker within twenty-one days of the date when it was presented to him for assent with a message stating the reasons why he has withheld his assent.”
(4) Where a Bill is so returned to the Speaker it shall not again be presented to the President for assent unless within six months of the Bill being so returned upon a motion supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds of all the elected members of the National Assembly the Assembly resolves that the Bill be again be presented for assent.”
(5) Where the National Assembly so resolves that a Bill be again be presented for assent, the Bill shall be so presented and the President shall assent to it within ninety days of its presentation.
We are not sure what the Speaker meant by ‘the reality, authority and legitimacy of the 10th Parliament.” One reality of the 10th Parliament is that it is controlled by the Opposition with its one-seat majority. They may therefore pass Bills, after debate, with that majority. However, for that Bill to become law – the Bill will have to be assented to by the President.
In the event that the President does not give assent, there is no “constitutional crisis” provoked, as feared by the Speaker. The President must return the Bill to the Speaker within twenty-one days. And this is where it gets tricky but we still do not see a ‘constitutional crisis’ being ineluctably precipitated.
If within six months, the Opposition can muster a two-thirds majority, the President must (“shall”) assent it into law.
But this other ‘reality’ which the Speaker seemingly ignored, means that the Opposition must receive the consent of at least eleven PPP votes. And if it cannot obtain those votes it always has the option of calling for a vote of ‘no confidence’ in the government and thus precipitate elections three months thereafter. No “Constitutional crisis”.
Conversely, it can take into consideration the positions articulated by the government on the bills it intends to introduce and so pre-empt the whole rigmarole. We thought the electorate spoke clearly at the last elections: the two sides must talk to each other.