The politics of ‘no’ – commentary

The politics of ‘no’

Stabroek News – June 17, 2012 Editorial |

In an interview with the National Communications Network on Wednesday, President Ramotar let it be known that he would not give his assent to bills passed by the opposition unless the government had had some input into them. The GINA release which conveyed this information also said that the President’s warning had come in response to the prevailing notion of ‘rule-by-motion’ politics in the National Assembly where APNU and the AFC have used their slender majority to defeat the government. “That is not the function of the opposition,” President Ramotar was quoted as saying, “They must respect what is their role… I am making it very clear that I will not assent to any bill that they carry unless it is with the full agreement of the executive and the full involvement of the executive.”

No room for misinterpretation there. Given the government’s record so far during the Tenth Parliament, there is clearly little inclination to work with the opposition on legislation – or at least, to give any ground in that department. As it is, the opposition has been resorting to motions in the National Assembly, but this could hardly be described as “rule-by-motion,” since without it being translated into legislation, it has no statutory force whatsoever. The only thing it does is highlight issues in a parliamentary setting, and embarrass the government. 

Having said that, the embarrassment in itself can serve to goad the administration into action, which is presumably what happened in the case of the Audit Office. It transpired last week that the governing party in Parliament had pre-empted a motion by Carl Greenidge to take the Audit Office off the list of budget agencies and make it autonomous by having it draw its finances directly from the Consolidated Fund. On Wednesday the opposition discovered that Minister Ashni Singh had recently signed an order to that effect already, obliging Mr. Greenidge then to withdraw his motion to loud heckling from the government benches. This somewhat silly game-playing did nothing to enhance the ruling party’s reputation for sensible governance, but at least an important objective was achieved on this occasion by only the threat of a motion being passed.

President Ramotar, it seems, does not believe that passing motions is the “function of the opposition,” although exactly what it is he thinks that function is was not set forth. Since it is not, apparently, to present legislation either, it would appear by implication that he expects the majority in the National Assembly to give their automatic imprimatur to whatever the minority lays in front of them. Clearly all the assurances about working with the opposition that President Ramotar delivered when in more avuncular mode earlier in his term was only so much candyfloss.

Certainly, as was observed in an editorial in this newspaper on Monday, June 4, there is no clear legislative agenda from either side after six months. The government in particular appears to have given up on this aspect of its functions, and its main concern appears to be trying to operate as it has traditionally done, and where it has been thwarted to hammer the opposition at every public forum available to it. Most recently it was a rejuvenated Mr Jagdeo, no less, who took on that task – for which he does not lack experience – at the opening of the new NBS head office on Friday. It is the budget cuts, of course, which are the administration’s primary obsession, and while it may have obtained some traction on that score in the hinterland, along the coast its recriminations have fallen on altogether more knowing, cynical ears.  The government’s other tactic is a resort to the courts, an inappropriate approach in which it persists, despite an initial rebuff from the High Court. Since the President saw fit to lecture the opposition (not quite accurately) on the matter of the separation of powers, one wonders why he was unable to apply the principle in this instance.

While the two opposition parties did disclose some plans for their priority legislation which we reported in last Sunday’s edition, one is left to wonder why there is not greater co-ordination between the two of them on a more organized basis. Why, for example, do they not have some kind of regular encounter in place, whereby a senior member of APNU meets with a senior member of the AFC to co-ordinate their legislative agenda and, most importantly, their strategy. What is happening at the moment is completely ad hoc, and leaves room for misunderstandings of one variety or another, and the kind of fiasco which occurred at the beginning of the year.

The reality is that the one-seat majority is only possible when the two of them vote in concert, and this being so, they have to operate in concert, but for some reason or other, that is not happening. As the larger party which has the leadership of the opposition, it is for APNU to make the first move, and the fact that it has not done so suggests a measure of disorganization and perhaps a lack of a centralized perspective within the party. It is not a formula designed to advance objectives, for there is nothing like muddle to undermine systems, impede goals and destroy alliances. In this case too, the opposition parties will exasperate the electorate which put them there, and give the governing party the confidence to call a ‘snap’ election, which voters could certainly do without at this stage, even if it can’t come off immediately – which it can’t. In addition, of course,  if the tripartite discussions actually get around to meaningful exchanges on legislation, then the two opposition parties had better be singing from the same hymn sheet.

It is true that the opposition will have greater difficulty in terms of drafting legislation than will the government, which has access to a legal draftsman in the Attorney General’s chambers. It was a problem mentioned by Mr Khemraj Ramjattan in our report last Sunday, although APNU, from Mr David Granger’s remarks, seems less hamstrung in that regard. In a general sense of course, it is easier to amend existing legislation than introduce an entirely new bill, and in that regard there are two items which were mentioned among several others by the leaders in our report last week, one being the Former Presidents (Benefits and Other Facilities) Act 2009 and the other the various bills in relation to the local government elections, which the government one would hope, regards as being at or near the top of its list for discussion.

The opposition parties, it seems, are both now prepared for amendment to the former benefits act, rather than total repeal. It is a priority matter, if only because the opposition campaigned on it and gave undertakings to the electorate about changing it. And what happens if the government refuses to agree to reasonable changes to the act? One imagines the opposition would go ahead and use its majority to pass the amended bill, and let President Ramotar, if he so decides, withhold his assent. In such circumstances the public would draw the inevitable conclusion. If the government tried to stymie things at an earlier stage and refused to put it on the agenda for tripartite discussions, one supposes matters would follow the same route. By extension, of course, if there were, for the sake of argument, to be a sequence of bills passed unilaterally, so to speak, because consensus could not be reached with the government, and all were rejected by the President, the ruling party would probably discover there was a political price to pay.

As it is, the AFC, it seems, will soon be tabling the first major piece of legislation in the National Assembly – a Telecommunications Bill. APNU will, it was reported last week, give this bill favourable consideration, although significant as it no doubt is, it was not clear why this should be the first item of legislation to be brought by an opposition party. For its part, APNU was said by Mr Granger to be currently drafting two bills, one relating to the autonomy of the National Assembly, and the other the amended former presidents act, both of which it would table before the recess on August 10.  While the first of these is undeniably important in terms of autonomous systems, it does not have the resonance with the public which the former presidents act has, and voters may want to know why the opposition isn’t more vocal about trying to get the government into tripartite discussions about local government legislation. With that on the statute books local government elections could be held and the undemocratic IMC pantomime could be brought to a halt.

While given the results of the last election the citizens of this country clearly do not see the job of the government as being to say ‘no’ to every bill, motion or suggestion the opposition brings forward, it is not the job of the opposition either to reject indiscriminately everything the government lays before it. Apropos of that, the tale of the opposition voting down without discussion the government’s Financial Paper, which had already been voted down at an earlier stage required some public explanation. In the House Mr Greenidge argued that under the Standing Orders the government could not bring back the same paper again, but he was overruled by the Speaker.

As such voters would want to know why no discussion was entertained or questions asked about whether the government could bring further justification for the need for this money that they had not offered the first time around, even although the paper itself was unchanged. While the government was playing games again, not asking questions or if necessary allowing discussion, even if in the end the paper was still voted down, at least would have demonstrated a willingness to attempt to work with the administration.

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