By Kiana Wilburg
It was the dream of the late Dr. Cheddi Jagan for the Parliament to not be seen as a rubber stamp.
He envisioned restoring the supremacy of the Parliament by having its sovereignty expanded. He did this by introducing Standing Committees. There, issues can be debated and discussed long before they go to Cabinet or the National Assembly.
The late former President made this point clear in an interview just after he assumed office in 1992. Dr. Jagan had noted that Parliament is very important …otherwise “you can easily have what one professor from the University of the West Indies called ‘the Westminster Majoritarian dictatorship.”
Today, many politicians and activists believe that this vision seems to be fading due to government’s “blatant disregard for the role of the Parliament and its committees at that.”
The Speaker of the National Assembly, Raphael Trotman in a previous interview with this publication had expressed that over the years, he has noticed the erosion of respect for the word of the National Assembly.
The House Speaker had said that “Government ignores what it wants and obeys what it wants. Both Government and the Opposition have a responsibility to respect the Parliament. If not, then the House will be seen as a rubber stamp and its laws not treated with respect.”
Just recently, Trotman referred the Finance Minister, Dr. Ashni Singh to the Privileges Committee over a motion moved by Carl Greenidge that the Minister had spent over $4B from the Consolidated Funds without the approval of the National Assembly.
The Attorney General (AG), Anil Nandlall had responded to this action, stating that it is for the Courts to decide on constitutional matters and not a Committee of Parliament.
With this in mind, it has been opined that this is not the first time government has “run to the courts” when it is “not pleased” with a ruling of the Assembly.
With this being a “developing pattern,” questions have arisen as to whether it is a contributing factor in the erosion of the supremacy of the Parliament.
Leader of the Alliance for Change, Khemraj Ramjattan said that Nandlall’s statement is “nothing but bologna.”
He said that Nandlall seems to be suggesting that even if the Standing Orders say that one is prohibited from assaulting another in Parliament, that politician can go ahead and be abusive and tell the victim that they must take the matter to the court.
“He is basically telling the victim that you can’t do me anything in here (the Parliament)… That is wrong. The committee in Parliament was established under the Constitution and gives them the power to do a lot of things when you breach the law. We are the ones that can decide on the action committed and after our ruling, the Constitution allows for the person referred to the committee, to go to the courts. But they (government) want to do a frontal blockage of us taking him to the committee and that is wrong.”
The attorney at law referred to the doctrine of separation of powers which says that “indeed matters of Privileges will be dealt with by the Parliamentarians”.
Nandlall, he said, “is going to put all his ministers in serious trouble and is making them criminals with his advice…”
Ramjattan added that he is concerned that the supremacy of the Parliament is quickly deteriorating.
“Dr. Jagan had warned about Parliament being eroded to a mere rubber stamp and I am concerned about what is taking place now. The Ramotar administration is a far cry from the Jagan principles and that is why I left and others too.”
Financial Spokesman of the A Partnership for National Unity, (APNU) Carl Greenidge, however believes that it is not so much the supremacy of Parliament that is under threat but the separation of powers.
Greenidge said he is not surprised by Nandlall’s comment. In fact, he finds it to be disingenuous.
He said that the AG believes that he is “on to a good thing with the courts” and will no doubt milk that advantage for all it is worth.
“He tries to goad the Opposition parties to fight on a ground which he believes he has an advantage,” Greenidge opined.
Greenidge reminded that President Donald Ramotar explained that Dr. Singh was carrying out the instructions of Cabinet in undertaking the expenditure in spite of the refusal of the Assembly to approve funds.
Greenidge said that the relevance of that bit of information is unclear since such approval cannot absolve a Minister from acting within the law or from respecting the rules and standing orders of the Assembly.
He said that the fact that the President could make that point to justify the Minister’s action, demonstrates just how contemptuous the regime is of the law, the Constitution and local institutions.
Further, Greenidge said that the legal and constitutional issues are one aspect of the controversy. The rules of the Assembly are another.
“The Speaker’s action against Dr. Singh calls on the responsibility of Members of Parliaments (MP)s to respect the Assembly’s decisions. That respect cannot be dependent on whether the decision was based on a government or opposition-led majority,” Greenidge asserted.
He added that the government was happy to accept the decision when money was approved and spent it. However, when it was not approved, they were unhappy and still spent it.
Greenidge emphasized that the “heads I win, tails you lose approach” is not consistent with democratic principles and decision-making. “It is unacceptable within a Cabinet where collective responsibility applies. It is unacceptable in the Assembly. A Minister behaving in that manner in a Cabinet has to resign, if he is not to be dismissed.”
Also of significance Greenidge said, was that the Constitution specifies the responsibilities of the main organs of the State. It also says that subject to the provisions of that Constitution, “… the National Assembly may regulate its own procedure and make rules for that purpose…”
He said that only the National Assembly has the right to set rules and procedures governing its mode of work, including the disciplining of its members.
“The AG’s call for the courts to intervene is no doubt based on the unreasonable expectation that the Chief Justice (CJ) will remain the only judge taking these constitutional cases. The AG is inviting the CJ to decide that the courts can, in effect, exclusively or jointly discipline MPs and is yet another example of the erosion of the separation of powers.”
Greenidge said that if a Minister refuses to adhere to a decision of which he was a part and which he took to the President for enactment, then “how can he refuse to implement it without bringing the actions of the Assembly into disrepute and without subjecting the Assembly, and possibly the entire system, to ridicule?”
He said that even as the Assembly declined to provide monies for the projects and entities engaged in unprofessional activities, unconstitutional bias and infringing the laws about procurement, Dr. Singh was illegally authorizing expenditure on the same projects.
Greenidge also questioned if Dr. Singh was sure he had the power to do so without the approval of the Assembly “why did he bring an Appropriation Bill for approval in the first place? He continued his spending spree after the decision, a period (April to June 16) not covered by a Statement of Excess.”
Contrary to the AG’s assertion, Greenidge explained that the censure is not about the interpretation of the Constitution but about yet another act of contempt the Minister has shown regarding the decisions of the Assembly.
“How is it that the Minister could so expertly parse the language of Articles 217, 218 and 219 of the Constitution and still be unable to understand the meaning of, ‘not approved?” the politician questioned.
Greenidge concluded that determining the content and size of the Appropriation Act is not the responsibility of the courts and while the interpretation of the Act is their responsibility, the indiscipline and contempt the Minister showed the Assembly is not.
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