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It would not be difficult to find other examples of the democratic worthlessness of Guyana’s parliament, but the disruption that recently took place in the National Assembly over the Natural Resources Fund Bill will do. There has been widespread public concern that the Bill in its current form is deficient and leaves the government – and hence the PPP – in effective control of the Fund. Transparency Institute of Guyana, the Guyana Trades Union Congress, the African Cultural and Development Association, and others called upon the government to delay passing the Bill. In its recent meeting with the Commonwealth Secretary-General, the opposition complained about ‘… the malfunctioning of the Parliament … particularly the repressive conduct of the Speaker in seeking to muzzle debate, his refusal to permit debates on Motions of urgent and national importance, and the rejection of hundreds of questions!’
True to this form, notwithstanding this general discontent, during the above mentioned sitting, the government proceeded to pass the legislation in a single sitting and it was the government rejection of the opposition request that the Bill be sent to a select committee of the House for further scrutiny that was the immediate cause of the disruption. The Guyana Human Rights Association must be sadly disappointed for it has correctly noted that the success of this legislation will depend upon ‘how well public consultation on (it) is managed.’
By allowing the executive to control the legislature, Westminster-type parliaments undermine the separation of powers, and this is made toxic in Guyana ,where the executive is in the control of a party rooted in ethnicity, elections are essentially ethnic arithmetic and the situation is compounded by substantial electoral manipulation. While it is true that parties could use parliament to focus national attention on issues they consider important, the possible impact of the forum being used by the opposition to present itself as an alternative government is considerably diminished. But schooled in the Westminster tradition, Guyanese tend to take for granted the usually touted ‘benefits’ of parliamentarianism, failing to grasp that the context of Westminster democracy is substantially different and that while it rests upon a host of arcane traditions, there have been efforts at modernisation.
In May 1976, Michael Heseltine was leading the British Conservative opposition in a heated debate in the House of Commons. The vote on an amendment tied and was lost by the opposition when the Speaker voted with the government. Since a ‘pairing’ arrangement (two members of parliament from opposing parties agree to abstain from voting if the other is unable to attend the vote, thus preserving the balance of power in parliament.) was in place, Heseltine expected the vote on the main motion to be similarly tied, but it was carried by the government side. An infuriated Heseltine grabbed the Mace, began to swing it over his head and had to be restrained. The next day he unreservedly apologized for his behaviour but four decades later, he claimed that his behaviour resulted from a breakdown of the parliamentary pairing system, which he noted ‘relies on trust, my word is my bond…and if you can’t believe that, then the pairing system collapses and the business of parliament becomes chaotic.’
As if they expected the Opposition to do nothing in the face of this persistent parliamentary abuse, the PPP/C and its cheerleaders have made a huge song and dance about the disruption of the ‘hallowed’ chamber and have singled out 8 Opposition PMs to be disciplined. For its part, the Opposition has brought a similar disciplinary motion against some 22 government MPs, claiming that they were also involved in the fracas. Of course, the disruption is merely the outcome of a broken political system that does not organically facilitate compromise and does not have sufficient checks and balance upon a government that is autocratically inclined.
Given the ethnic majoritarianism in Guyana, it is foolhardy to expect incumbent governments to voluntarily agree to changes that will democratise the parliament but best practices exist that could make the National Assembly more inclusive. As examples, there could be a reasonable number of mandatory days when Opposition determined agendas are give given precedent, special majority to prevent a bill from going to the committee stage and financial support to help Oppositions MP perform their duties.
The Standing Orders of the House of Commons state that 20 days (of about the 135 days per year parliament sits) shall be allotted in each session for proceedings on opposition business, 17 of which shall be at the disposal of the Leader of the Opposition and three of which shall be at the disposal of the leader of the second largest opposition party; and matters selected on those days shall have precedence over government business. In addition, a Backbench Business Committee has the right to establish business on 35 days each session, of which 27 must be in the Chamber. Public funding is available not only to establish and maintain an office for the Leader of the Opposition but also to assist opposition parties to carry out their parliamentary business and to defray travel and associated expenses.
Parliamentarians are politicians who must expect, in support of their ‘just’ positions, to have to take radical action. So, that when the tactic of parliamentary disruption is collectively adopted the possible consequences are also taken into account. Strong disciplinary measures are not the answer: the mechanism to ensure that disruptions are avoided is, as Heseltine suggested, ‘fair play’ and liberal opportunities to discuss important national issues. The government must take much of the blame for the disruption that took place and be careful that it’s behaviour does not encourage extra-parliamentary responses.