Jan 25, 2016 News Comments Off on Parliament an undemocratic place for opposing views
– Dr. David Hinds
By Kiana Wilburg
At every sitting of the National Assembly, it becomes clearer, that bygones will never remain bygones. Insults will be thrown. Insinuations about a politician’s misgivings will be brought up, and political finesse will be thrown out of the window, regardless of how many times the House Speaker, Dr. Barton Scotland reminds the office holders that they are being watched, that they are expected to behave in line with parliamentary codes of conduct.
About two weeks ago, the Parliamentary opposition lamented that it had been over 15 sittings and it was yet to have its day in the House to bring matters it believed were of national importance. But every motion it brought was either rejected by the Speaker, shot down by the Government’s side and in one historic case, one of the Opposition’s motions was hijacked, amended by the Executive and passed.
It was not their day at all, some concluded. In fact, University Professor, Dr. David Hinds says that the Parliament is not, “a very democratic place as far as scope for the Opposition is concerned.”
As for the criticism that the Executive is perhaps adopting the same, “arrogant and disrespectful attitude which was displayed in the Parliament by the PPP regime,” Dr. Hinds says that he does not agree.
“I don’t think it’s a case of the new government behaving like the previous one. The government has changed, but the parliamentary rules have not changed. That’s where the issue is. The problem lies at the very nature of our parliamentary democracy; it’s a majoritarian democracy that gives the majority party or parties almost total control of the parliamentary agenda and outcomes. Pure and simple, that is the problem.”
In Guyana’s acrimonious political culture, Dr. Hinds said that all governments inevitably activate their majority parliamentary privilege.
“I say inevitable because the parliamentary opposition is seldom in a mode of cooperation. Opposition has come to mean undermining of government and using the parliament not as oversight, but as a medium for political cuss-down.”
The political activist also addressed the opposition’s objection to Executive members being on standing committees or even chairing them. He said that indeed the opposition parties chair some sectoral committees. He said however that it is on the floor that major decisions are made and the opposition just does not have the votes.
“Crucially, they also don’t control the agenda. So that government bills get preference partly because it is the government that primarily runs the country but partly because the government side has the power to determine the agenda. In the final analysis the parliament is not a very democratic place as far as scope for the opposition is concerned. Perhaps that is why they don’t treat it with much reverence.”
The University professor said that a lot is placed on the Speaker to be a fair moderator.
“But in the last analysis the Speaker is there with the support of the Majority; more often than not he or she is a member of the majority party or one of the parties in the case of a Coalition. Some of our Speakers have tried to be impartial as far as the rules allow them to. However, no speaker is going to undermine the majority that puts him or her there. In any case, often the speaker has to be constantly parting fights between the two sides and preventing the opposition from turning the parliament into street-corner party rallies.”
He then referred to the recent case where the Speaker, Dr. Barton Scotland, did not allow the PPP’s motion to discuss the looming Wales closure. The Speaker rejected the motion for according to the Standing Orders, such motions should satisfy three absolute criteria—definite, urgent and of national importance.
Dr. Scotland had told the House that the matter was indeed definite and of public importance but it is not urgent, since the closure is expected to be at the end of the year.
“The Speaker was acting within the rules. It was not an extraordinarily urgent matter. Of course it’s the speaker’s judgment. On such a matter I would have exercised some leniency and allowed limited debate. But if you do that where do you stop? There was other equally important business on the agenda that day. So you have to have good reason to delay that agenda.”
“One of our major problems is that the parliament cannot serve as an effective oversight of the Executive because most of the members of the executive sit in parliament. There is no clear separation of powers. The same people who are Ministers are parliamentarians. The non-cabinet parliamentarians of the majority party are backbenchers with little say in what goes on.”
The political activist noted that often they only speak for a few minutes at Budget time. He said that one cannot reasonably expect the government to oversee itself. He said that the only exception to this rule was during the period 2011-2015 when the parliament was controlled by different parties.
Dr. Hinds intimated that there is also a serious need for parliamentary reform.
“I think this super part-time legislature is not serving well. There is just not enough time for parliamentary deliberations. So I think we need to move towards a more full-time legislature with more sittings and more resources for parliamentarians to do their work more diligently. They have to move from being parliamentarians in name only.”
Dr. Hinds said that they are in the Parliament to represent constituents, to debate the issues, to make law, to lead. “They are not there to sit week after week and participate very little in the deliberations beyond voting. All our parliamentarians need to be integrally involved in the debates and work of the body. The National Assembly should not be a place just for leaders in the spotlight; it must become a more inclusive body.”
He also believes that there is great need for more Separation of Powers between Parliament and the Executive.
“We have to begin to substantially reduce the number of Ministers who are parliamentarians. That is the only way we will get better oversight from parliament. Partisan votes would not go away. But government parliamentarians would have a bit more autonomy to take their work more seriously. And at least we would get rid of the charade of government overseeing itself.”
Hinds said that there is also a need to have more Members Days where members on both sides get to ventilate on issues that affect their constituents and the country.
He said that this should also be matched with more sectoral committees to cover the various areas of government. Dr. Hinds said that it is at the committee level that Government Ministries should be monitored and the Ministers be subjected to scrutiny. “I am not recommending we lift the American system wholesale. But some aspects of it should be adopted.”
“I would also recommend that we move to a Bi-cameral Assembly. We are the only ones in the Anglophone Caribbean with a single house. We need a second House to serve as a check on the present House and to widen the base of parliamentary debate and law-making. This second house should have both elected and unelected members and be armed with some sort of Limited Veto powers.”
As for the change to the parliamentary culture, the University professor believes that this would change if members feel less pressured to defend the party. He said that this is where power sharing is so vital.
Dr. Hinds said that if the winner-takes-all goes then all sides are guaranteed a share of the executive power. He said that this removes the pressure on parliament to be an arena of partisan struggles and allows it to get down to real serious representation work and of course law-making and oversight.
“We have to get the zero-sum mentality out of the political culture. And it takes some political engineering. It just does not happen by simply urging people not to vote race or disparaging them because they vote race.”
Last year, President David Granger had said that he would work along with Minister of Social Cohesion, Amna Ally in bring unifying mechanisms to the parliamentary level in an effort to change the acidic nature of Guyana’s politics.
While this is yet to be seen, Dr. Hinds said that indeed it is something to consider. He said however that social cohesion must be a guiding principle that parliamentarians must be armed with before they arrive in parliament. He said that it would be difficult to develop social cohesion while one is on the job in the House.
“But if the President means that the Parliament can benefit from the culture of Social Cohesion or can and should become the embodiment of Social Cohesion, then I am with him. Ultimately the nation can benefit from a parliament that reflects national purpose, national jointness and national reconciliation.”
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