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…govt says focused on spending budget, containing Covid
…opposition cites lack transparency, has 260 questions
By Svetlana Marshall
The National Assembly of the 12th Parliament of Guyana has not met in close to two months, and it is unclear when a next sitting will be held, though the main Opposition – the A Partnership for National Unity + Alliance For Change (APNU+AFC) – has submitted approximately 260 questions for response and at least two motions ranging from Oil and Gas to the alleged assault on Opposition MP Tabitha Sarabo-Halley.
For the Opposition’s Chief Whip Christopher Jones, the situation is concerning. He recalled that the National Assembly last met on March 4, 2021 when it passed the $353B National Budget.
“We are very much concern because this is the national level, in which, as opposition MPs we are able to ask questions of the Government in terms of their policies [and] expenditures. Now for the period we have approximately 260 questions that have been submitted, and the only time we will get the answer to those questions is when the Parliament meets,” Jones told Village Voice Newspaper.
He said the failure to convene the National Assembly is resulting in a clear lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the very Government.
“We are already in that red zone…If the parliament doesn’t meet, we have no way in which we can hold the Government accountable for the budget that we have just allocated to them, well over 300 and something billion dollars. We have no way of asking them about a specific project in which those monies were allocated for. We have no answer to the questions we have submitted as well because there is no sitting. So in terms of transparency and accountability for the people’s money that we just allocated to the Government, we have no way of holding them accountable, and as far as I am concerned, after a month, we are already in that zone,” the Opposition Chief Whip said.
He explained that a large percent of the questions are based on programmes and projects covered in the 2021 National Budget for which there was little scrutiny after a ruckus broke out in the Arthur Chung Conference Centre (ACCC) over the presence of Minister Kwame McCoy, who was accused of physically assaulting Opposition Member of Parliament, Tabitha Sarabo-Halley.
On March 4, several APNU+AFC MPs were suspended by the Speaker of the National Assembly Manzoor Nadir, including the Opposition Chief Whip, for disrupting the Committee of Supply as they demanded the removal of Minister McCoy. As such, the consideration of the National Budget, which was expected to last another three days at the level of the Committee of Supply, concluded within hours with little to no scrutiny.
QUESTIONS AND MOTIONS
Now, the APNU+AFC, which holds 31 seats in the House, wants answers. Opposition MP Ganesh Mahipaul, alone, has submitted two lists totaling 45 questions for the Minister of Local Government and Regional Development Nigel Dharamlall.
MP Mahipaul wants answers on a number of multimillion dollar infrastructural projects undertaken by the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development, in addition to information on the funds being allocated to the Sustainable Livelihood Entrepreneurial Development (SLED) Programme; and the $1.172B approved for the Community Infrastructure Improvement Project. He has also asked a number of questions relating to the staff of the ministry inclusive of their salaries.
Opposition MP Tabitha Sarabo-Halley has also tabled a number of questions on scholarships being offered by the Ministry of Public Service under the GOAL initiative, while MP Geeta Chandan-Edmond has submitted a total of eight questions for a response by the Minister of Home Affairs, Robeson Benn on Government’s decision to establish a Corporate Communications Unit within the Guyana Police Force.
The Opposition Chief Whip said also on the agenda is a motion related to the Oil and Gas Sector, in which the APNU+AFC, through MP David Patterson, is calling for the establishment of a Multi-Agency Taskforce to prepare a Land Use Policy specifically for the location of the Oil and Gas Sector.
“Be it further resolved that the Government advises the taskforce that it is the preference of this National Assembly for future onshore bases be in the Counties of Berbice and Essequibo to ensure parity in development of the Oil and Gas Industry and equitable development across Guyana for the benefit of all citizens,” a section of the proposed motion reads. Through the motion, the Opposition is seeking to have all future shore bases owned by the Government but with avenues for them to be leased to private operators.
That motion aside, the Coalition had submitted another motion calling for the National Assembly to “condemn the attitude, conduct and behavior” of Minister McCoy, and for there to be an apology issued to MP Sarabo Halley. However, the Opposition Chief Whip said even in the absence of a sitting of the National Assembly, the speaker disallowed the motion.
COVID AND THE ECONOMY ARE OUR PRIORITY
Government’s Chief Whip and Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Governance, Gail Teixeira, when contacted by Village Voice News, confirmed that Government has not set a date for the next sitting of the National Assembly.
“And I wouldn’t be able to say when that date would be set,” she told this newspaper. According to her, the Government is focused on reducing the spread of the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) through its ongoing vaccination programme, in addition to the implementation of its 2021 budgetary programmes.
“We are operating within a COVID environment and we have a very heavy agenda and programme and budget to get through, and so the focus right now is to get the country going, keep the economy going, help people as much as possible, and try to address COVID,” the Government Chief Whip said.
She further added: “[We’re] trying to bring COVID under control and getting our programmes moving, that would open up the country in terms of jobs and improving people’s lives, that’s the priority right now. And so we have not called a sitting of Parliament because these are the two overriding national concerns.”
Minister Teixeira rejected the Opposition’s contention that failure to meet as a National Assembly would result in a lack of transparency on the part of Government.
“There is nothing preventing transparency and accountability that the opposition speaks of,” the Government Chief Whip said as she pointed out that there are four Sectoral Committees on Foreign Relations, Social Services, Economic Services and National Resources for which Government could be scrutinized.
“There are four Sectoral Communities of which the Opposition chairs two, there has been no meeting, if you wish to scrutinize the government, you have Economic Services and Foreign Services [Committees],” she posited.
Minister Teixeira also pointed to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) but reminded that the work of the Committee has been brought to a halt over a Government sponsored motion which seeks to remove Opposition MP David Patterson from the chair. “I don’t think the opposition has much appetite to examine the audit reports of 2016, 2017, and 2018 but that is my view,” she posited.
The Government Chief Whip believes that aside from the National Assembly, the Opposition has a number of avenues it can use to scrutinize the Government. “They can also do like what we did when we were in Opposition, we exposed what we thought was wrong that the Government was doing with facts, why don’t they try that,” she asked.
SUSPENSION OF ALL COMMITTEES
But while the Government’s Chief Whip has pointed to the conduct of committee meetings, a noticed published by the Parliament Office has advised that Parliamentary Committees and Sub-Committees have been suspended until further notice.
“Due to the rise in cases of COVID-19, including five members of staff who were tested positive during the past week, the Speaker of the National Assembly has decided that all meetings of Parliamentary Committees and Sub-Committees at the Public Buildings will be discontinued with immediate effect until further notice,” a section of the notice dated April 16 read.
The Clerk of the National Assembly, Sherlock Isaacs said in keeping with instructions received, the Public Building was fumigated on Friday (April 23). He said the Parliament Office has scaled down its operations amid the pandemic. Notably, since the opening of the 12th Parliament, the National Assembly has met at the Arthur Chung Conference Center to allow for physical distancing and the adherence to other preventative measures.