In the Guyana Chronicle dated 18th March, 2013, Attorney General Anil Nandlall declared that “any attempts to cut the Budget this year, by the combined Opposition, will again bring it in conflict with the Constitution”. He further stated, “…such action by the Opposition would, essentially, be trying to prepare the nation’s Budget by the combined opposition”.
We wonder why the Constitution of this country would create a situation where taxpayers’ money must be spent to facilitate over a week of debate in the National Assembly when, according to the AG, this august body has no power to reduce anything. It is well nigh ridiculous that the Constitution would command such a waste of money and man days!
The AG’s position is that the National Assembly can only approve the Estimates without any amendment. He concedes that Parliament can disapprove it totally. So it is either Yea or Nay and nothing else.
The Nay vote would mean a no confidence in the Government, forcing new elections. We can only conclude that we doubt that the authors of the constitution could have been so silly as to offer no other options for the Opposition or for that matter, the Government, to influence the running of the country’s financial affairs except by forcing new elections. Though our Chief Justice, Chang, has adopted this position, his (as even he admits), is only provisional. It is not final. Well that being so, we posit that the Assembly ought not to be bound by a provisional decision. And every effort should be made to get it final.
The AG uses Article 218 to argue that the Opposition can reduce a hundred million dollar budget to zero, but cannot reduce it to let’s say 90 million. Not a very rational construction to article 218. Quite frankly it is downright dumb!
We think a deeper understanding of the role of the Assembly in control of the public purse is needed by both these lawyers. Both would have then appreciated why article 171 is in existence. This article, among other things, gives the sole right to a Cabinet-signified Minister to proceed upon any Motion or Bill, (or any amendment thereto), for imposing any charge on the Consolidated Fund. But it gives the right to any other member than a Minister to proceed upon a Motion or Bill to reduce that charge. If it is not so, then the AG and the CJ ought to explain the words “other than by reducing it” in subarticle (2) a ii of that article.
An appreciation of our Standing Orders further supports the right of the National Assembly to reduce or amend or cut the Estimates. The AG says nothing about these Standing Orders. The CJ says they are not law!
The relevant Standing Orders applicable which speak directly to reducing or amending include Standing Order (SO) 71 (b) which provides that “The motion for the approval of the Estimates shall be amended if necessary, and put, without further debate, as moved or as amended, as the case may be. (Underlined and italicised for emphasis).
Here again the AG needs to explain what the words “amend if necessary” and “as moved or as amended” mean. The CJ never did make reference to these Standing Orders.
Another relevant Standing Order ought to have been utilized here to give a complete picture. SO 75 which deals with the Procedures in Committee of Supply (1) says that when every head of Estimates has been decided, the “Chairperson shall put the question to the Committee that the Estimates (or the Estimates as amended) be reported to the Assembly. The Minister in charge of the Estimates shall report it to the Assembly”. These words must mean something!
SO 76, points to the power the National Assembly and is subtitled, “Amendments to Heads of Estimates of Committee of Supply”. It provides
(1) “An amendment to any Head of Expenditure to reduce the sum allotted thereto in respect of any item therein may be moved by any Member, and shall take the form of a motion …”
Here again the position is clear as to the powers of the Assembly with regards to its powers to reduce/cut the Estimates.
Constitutional articles and Standing Orders which make provisions for debate and amendment by the Committee of Supply before members decide and vote on the Estimates, could never have meant that the National Assembly has to approve or disapprove of those Estimates as presented by the Minister. These provisions must mean it could be amended or reduced or cut at the Committee of Supply stage.
The Finance Minister must report to the duly constituted National Assembly after deliberation in the Committee of Supply stage. In the case of 2012 Budget, the Hansard will reveal that Dr. Singh, Finance Minister, uttered these words: “Mr. Speaker, I beg to report that the Committee of Supply considered the Estimates of Expenditure for the Financial Year 2012 and approved of them as amended”. This was not a case of the Committee of Supply proposing or preparing the Estimates as the Attorney General argues. It is still the Minister proposing amended Estimates for approval.
The Minister then proceeded upon an Appropriation Bill and did this as a representative of the Executive Branch. He said in Budget 2012 and I quote “Cabinet has indicated its consent that the National Assembly proceeds with consideration of this Bill… with amended Schedule, of course.” This was after the cut of some $20B by the Opposition after the fifth and final day of debate.
Reducing the Estimates ought never to be interpreted to be an intrusion of the National Assembly into the domain of the Executive, as this is allowable and the Assembly is empowered by the Constitution and the Standing Orders to so do. Only in this way can there be checks and balances, where one arm of the government can hold the other accountable.
I will eat a piece of Exxon Christmas Cake with your ingredients inside.
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