IN ONE of my latest articles, I wrote about the precedent set by the recent elections in which we have, for the first time in our political history, a minority government. This article dealt primarily with hypothetical ways in which a minority government could work at a broad level. While I touched upon, as was recommended in a document I cited, the need for a “champion” to engender parliamentary reform as is necessary in the case of a hung parliament, time and space did not allow me to expand on the implications of this need.
I want to suggest that the champion needed in this context is not necessarily a sole individual, but a certain attitude and aptitude inherent within enough individuals operating within the system to both conceive and engender this change. At the end of the day, Parliament – indeed all of government – boils down to individuals and their individual decisions, granted as representatives of certain blocs or institutions to which they belong or are associated with.
Take the issue of the Speaker for example. As was reported in a news item in one of the local papers yesterday, there remains gridlock on the issue of Speaker of the National Assembly. The major opposition party/coalition, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) is adamant on putting forward its own candidates for the position, while the minor opposition party, the Alliance For Change (AFC), has its own candidate and says it refuses to budge.
While the PPP, the party that has won the presidency, and hence the right to form the government, has its own recommendation for Speaker, with its parliamentary minority, it would have to have the highly unlikely support of one of the opposition parties for their candidate to be elected. The ball is therefore in the court of the already divided parliamentary opposition to start things rolling, since Parliament cannot be convened without a Speaker. In essence, what we have are individuals embroiled in a contentious decision-making process about the placement of an individual within a key position.
I may be subject to, and would welcome, correction, but to my understanding, in Guyana, the role of Speaker – based as it is on the UK Parliamentary system – is one in which the office bearer is more of a neutral manager of the business of the legislative arm of government, as opposed to the more powerful and partisan speaker in the US Congressional system.
While I get it that the position of Speaker in our National Assembly does have tremendous influence in terms of this neutral management of Parliament, particularly with regard to presentations made by members of Parliament, this is done within the confines of the Standing Orders of the National Assembly, the rules of engagement that are set out in law.
Therefore, while it is that a skilful Speaker can interpret his duties conveniently for the benefit of the political party he or she represents, there really isn’t any leeway for setting or executing a partisan agenda, in the way, for example, that Republican John Boehner has been doing on a range of issues.
With that in mind, here is a revolutionary idea: why not have one or the combination of a non-partisan speaker and/or an annual election of a new speaker, with first preference based on parliamentary representation. Let’s consider the application of that scenario in the current context: we have three parliamentary parties, and five years between the polls: under the system I’m suggesting, the PPP’s choice for speaker would be the first year, APNU the second, and AFC the third, with two non-partisan speakers presiding over the final two years of the current Parliament.
In this way, not only do the parliamentary parties stand by their commitment to work with each other, as they all promised before the elections, but also a powerful signal is sent to the people of Guyana that the will exists in government to make this country the Cooperative Republic that we say we are. Politics, after all, is said to be the art of compromise.
All that said, before things progress, or regress, further, it is my firm belief that some sort of clear protocol needs to be established as prerequisite for moving forward with the business of government, particularly in the legislature. For example, there is the crucial issue of the budget to deal with – a section of the protocol would spell out clear roles and rules in the way the parties interact with each other in handling the money of the people of Guyana. Public security is another issue that needs to be dealt with in a structured, coherent manner.
I’ll repeat it again: what it boils down to is individual political will and the capacities of our political representatives to rise above partisan interests and to revert to the reason that the vast majority of them entered politics for in the first place, i.e., to serve the people of Guyana to the best of their abilities. To add to that, I would venture to say that their abilities need to be enhanced in a proactive way, most likely through the intervention of the Office of the Speaker or the Clerk of the National Assembly, via a mechanism which provides technical support to all parliamentarians, but those non-cabinet members in particular, on various issues. Of course, complementary to this would be a public education component that educates and informs the population about the business of government, particularly the interaction between the executive and legislative branches. In previous articles, I’ve suggested a non-partisan body be established to advocate and monitor Parliament’s accountability to the general public and I make that case again here. What I’m suggesting in essence is a system of truly participatory democracy whereby the lawmakers undertake their work in a transparent and accountable manner under the scrutiny of an informed and interested public – everything from the findings of parliamentary subcommittees to the results of tripartite talks which should be presented in a uniform, consensus-based manner to the people.
In future articles, I intend to expand on some of the areas covered above but let me say that Guyanese did not exercise their franchise to see inscrutability, stalling and ad hoc horse-trading. The effect of that sort of politics is clear in America today, particularly as embodied by the Tea Party movement, through which a policy of blatant obstructionism has hijacked legitimate debate and consensus in carrying out the will of the people. That is something America, with all its wealth and power, is currently reeling from, and that is something we as a developing country can ill afford.
Best wishes to all my readers in 2012.