Why has the Government failed to proceed with constitutional reform to implement the proposals contained in its manifesto for the 2015 general elections? According to Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, the blame for the delay lies at the feet of the Parliamentary Standing Committee for Constitutional Reform. He said that a draft Constitution Reform Bill has been before the Committee but that the Committee has yet to consider it. As if in answer, a news item appeared on Friday stating that the Standing Committee will be meeting. The results of the meeting are not known at the time of writing.
Readers will recall that the coalition’s core manifesto proposals for constitutional reform for the 2015 elections include separate presidential elections, the person gaining the second highest votes becoming the prime minister and any party gaining 15 percent or more of the votes being entitled to a share in the government.
The PNCR appears to have had no difficulty in accepting the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) in its appellate jurisdiction. The CCJ was established in 2005. As a court of original jurisdiction its function is to interpret and apply the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas which established the Carribean Community. Hoping that it would replace the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) as the final court for most of the region, the Heads of Government agreed to clothe the CCJ with an appellate jurisdiction to determine appeals in civil and criminal matters for member states which cease to allow appeals to the JCPC and accede to the jurisdiction of the CCJ. In 1999-2000 the PNCR agreed, without having to be persuaded, to a recommendation by the Constitutional Reform Commission that the Constitution be amended to provide for Guyana’s accession to the CCJ when it was established.
In a statement published last Friday, Vice President Carl Greenidge reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to the CCJ. Notwithstanding adverse decisions and that only four Caricom countries so far have joined the Court’s appellate jurisdiction, the Government was satisfied with its competence and quality. The CCJ was in the news recently when it held that a law which provided that cross dressing for an “improper purpose” was unconstitutional. Also, the electorates of Grenada and Antigua, like St. Vincent a while back, rejected the CCJ as their final court in place of the JCPC. The steadfast support of the CCJ by the Government of Guyana is welcome to all lawyers and should be to all politicians.
On Friday last the New York Times published “The $20 Billion Question for Guyana.” It was a lengthy review of Guyana and the impact that the oil discovery by Exxon and its partners in offshore Guyana is likely to have. Two recent articles by the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs, of world-wide reputation, like the New York Times (NYT), were published and reprinted in Guyana. Few Guyanese would recognize the description of Georgetown by one of them as ‘sleepy’ or by the NYT as a ‘musty clapboard town…which seems forgotten by time.’ Notwithstanding these unflattering first impressions of Georgetown by foreign journalists, the articles helped to highlight, not only the amount of financial resources that will become available to Guyana, but how those resources can be used or misused.
Guyana is described as an unlikely setting for the next oil boom. It is ‘one of the poorest countries in South America can become one of the wealthiest.’ The NYT article said that all the talk in Georgetown is about a sovereign wealth fund to manage the money. It underlined Minister Raphael Trotman’s comment, perhaps speaking hyperbolically, if he indeed said so, that we have been given a chance to get things right because ‘the Chinese cut down our forests and dug out our gold and we never got a cent…we could end up with the same experience with ExxonMobil.’ Whatever the dangers, Rystad Energy is quoted as predicting that Guyana will get $6 Billion by the end of the 2020s. But this is a modest estimate with a production of eventually 500,000 barrels a day. Doug McGhee, Exxon Operations Manager, predicted better social services and infrastructure, ‘if the government manages the resources right.’
During the lifetimes of Cheddi Jagan and Janet Jagan, the PPP twice, unanimously, decided to support a two-term presidential limit. A PPP delegation in 1995/6 proposed to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Reform that the constitution should be amended to provide for a two-term presidential limit. In 1999/2000, the same representation was made by the PPP to the Constitution Reform Commission. These public proposals reflected those unanimous decisions.
During the Ramotar presidency, Attorney General Anil Nandlall opposed the application by Richardson to deem as unconstitutional the amendment to the constitution that limited the presidential terms to two. Before Mr. Ramotar became president, he had publicly opposed the call for scrapping the two-term limit. He has welcomed the decision of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ).
When I read the headlines in SN yesterday morning, ‘AFC says constitutional reform still a priority,’ I could not feel a sense of elation. Instead, I sunk into a dejected mood of déjà vu. The headline itself subtly editorialized that it was not impressed with the promise. It added to the main banner ‘though no progress over three years.’ I believe that the AFC earnestly wishes to have constitutional reform but is faced with implacable resistance in the form of inactivity by APNU.
But more importantly, constitutional reform for the AFC, as well as for APNU, whenever it desultorily renews its fading undertaking, no longer seems to mean what it promised in the coalition’s manifesto. By omitting to refer to the manifesto promises, it appears that constitutional reform is being treated as a box to tick before the next elections comes along. It can then boast of fulfilling its election promise.