FLEXING MAJORITARIAN MUSCLE


Mr. Carl Greenidge outlined the Opposition’s pre-conceived views on the Supplementary Estimates (‘Estimates’) in an interview in the KN published on Thursday, February 16, just before their consideration by the National Assembly on the afternoon of that day. With his eye on the struggle for the leadership of the PNCR, words like “illegality” and “police action,” and threats to surcharge delinquent officials, flowed liberally against the Government and with reckless unconcern that a consideration of the Estimates do not give rise to such possibilities. Worse, these premature conclusions preceded consideration of the Estimates.

This is the first opportunity which the Opposition has had to flex it majoritarian muscle. And obviously it could not allow the moment to pass. After all, its constituency is looking on and anticipating fire and brimstone, as promised, over issues which the Opposition has made much about during the election campaign – financial mismanagement and corruption. The test of whether it failed or succeeded can be judged by the fact that the Opposition supported the first Paper, except two items, and merely caused the deferment of the second.

The APNU/AFC coalition surprisingly declined to support expenditure for the land preparation for a specialist hospital to be constructed with Indian assistance on the flimsy excuse that the Minister ought to have anticipated the expenditure. This leaves one to wonder whether the real reason is that the Opposition in fact had some sympathy with PNC executive member Hamilton Green who had suggested in a letter to the press that the hospital might be a vehicle by India to colonize Guyana.

The Government’s strong reaction to the Opposition’s vote in the National Assembly clearly reflected its disappointment at the fact that posturing has trumped constructiveness as there were no serious reasons for the Opposition’s position on the Estimates.

Section 24 of the Financial Administration and Audit Act (“the FAA Act”), Chapter 73:01 of the Laws of Guyana, now substantially repealed, contained the relevant provisions which relate to supplementary estimates. It provided for the establishment of a Contingencies Fund. Its purpose was “to defray unforeseen and urgent expenditure for which no other provision exists.” The section went on to provide that the Minister must be “satisfied,” that more expenditure is required for a particular “service,” or in respect of a new “service” which was not provided for. The Minister must also have been satisfied that “the circumstances are such that the expenditure cannot without injury to the public interest be postponed until adequate provision is made by Parliament.”

The FAA Act came into force  in 1961. Section 24 was inserted by an amendment in 1966. New legislation relating to financial management, the Financial Management and Administration Act (“the FMA Act”), was passed in 2003 and assented to in December. It repealed certain sections of the FAA Act, including the provisions mentioned above. However, it replaced them but with only one material amendment. Section 41 added “unavoidable” as a qualification to “unforeseen and urgent.”

Therefore, during the forty years of the combined operation of section 24 of the FAA Act and section 41 of the FMA Act, a methodology and format have developed by all past governments of approaching the National Assembly to approve the expenditure of funds by way of supplementary estimates. There was no departure from that methodology and format by the Minister on this occasion.

Under the legislation it is the responsibility of the Minister, representing the Executive, to be satisfied about two circumstances relating to the estimates, namely, that they are necessary  (‘unavoidable,’ ‘unforeseen’ and ‘urgent’) and that their postponement will lead to injury to the public interest. While the Constitution gives the legislature oversight over financial appropriations which it can exercise by rejecting the estimates as a whole or line items, the clear intention of the Act was that the National Assembly ought not to second guess the Minister once it is satisfied that his judgment about the two circumstances is bona fide.

In other words, the National Assembly is not required to come to the same judgment as the Minister. It might even disagree with the judgment of the Minister. However, once it is satisfied that the Minister’s judgment is founded on grounds that are legitimate, that is to say, bona fide, then the National Assembly ought to support the supplementary estimates. Conversely, it can reject the estimates where it is not satisfied that the Minister’s judgments which are required to be made under the FMA Act have not been made bona fide. The debate in the National Assembly indicated no such issue with the Minister’s judgment.

A clear demonstration of the correctness of the above conclusion was shown in relation to the rejection of funds for preparatory works for the construction of the specialist hospital. The Opposition voted against it on the ground that the Minister ought to have foreseen the expenditure notwithstanding the bona fides of his explanations. The Minister was not alleged to be dishonest, corrupt by himself or any official, displaying bad faith, or misleading the House. There was therefore no justification for the rejection of this item which could potentially jeopardize the construction of the hospital.

While such theoretical niceties are unlikely to impress the Opposition who have been expounding volubly about the law  and salivating at the prospect of surcharging the Minister for misconduct, the development of Guyana is being sacrificed at the altar of majoritarianist triumphalism and political ambition.

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