Constitutional fix

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Last Friday, the Carter Center of USA, with support of the British High Commission, sponsored a symposium on “Perspectives on Guyana’s Constitutional Reform Process” at the University of Guyana. Most commentators see the event as a not-too-subtle nudge from two of the major architects of our present political stasis for the incumbent APNU/AFC political regime to follow through with its pre-elections promise to initiate Constitutional Reform to address that dilemma.

One of the panelists, in fact, went to great lengths to remind the Government which did not field even a single representative in the audience of its promises on the subject in its manifesto. To wit, “APNU/AFC is committed to ending ‘winner take all’ politics”; and more specifically, “…will immediately appoint a Constitutional Reform Commission consisting of representatives of all major stakeholders trades unions, the Private Sector, religious and faith-based organisations, women, youths, professional organisations and the University.

“Its mandate will be to undertake the urgent task of fashioning comprehensive reforms for early implementation, designed to guarantee a democratic society free from the abuse of citizens by those in high office, fuelled by the exercise of arbitrary powers and behaviour by the Executive which is inconsistent with the spirit and provisions of the Constitution.”

Towards this end, the parties in Government specifically declared their commitment towards “re-balancing the powers and responsibilities of the Prime Minister and the President in a manner meant to reduce abuse, avoid conflicts of interest, and facilitate the more efficient execution of state functions.” It is rather ironic that while the Government has dragged its feet on Constitutional Reform, the element it identified as needing “comprehensive reforms and early implementation” has reared its ugly head repeatedly over the last two years. This, of course, is “the abuse of citizens by those in high office, fuelled by the exercise of arbitrary powers and behaviour by the Executive which is inconsistent with the spirit and provisions of the Constitution”.

The most recent manifestation of Executive abuse is, ironically, the behaviour of the legal advisor to the Government, Attorney General Basil Williams. His abuse of a Judge a member of the co-equal branch of Government, the Judiciary in his own court was so outrageous that it precipitated an official complaint by the Judge to the heads of the Judiciary.

In Guyana, there is no need to undertake massive root-and-branch changes in the Constitution. The Constitution cannot be treated like ordinary statutes, which can be rewritten at the drop of a hat for every minor exigency. Constitutions must display stability. Under the accepted tradition of Judicial Review, pioneered by the USA, our Judiciary has exhibited admirable wisdom in interpreting the constitutional strictures to address daily exigencies. The constitution has already been extensively revised in 2000, but it is widely conceded not least in the Manifesto of the incumbent government that the powers of the Executive were not pruned as extensively as was proposed by the more-than 4000 submissions.

The Steering Committee on Constitutional Reform (SCCR), which was established by this Government in 2015, has already taken wide-ranging submissions after extensive hearings. The next step was to constitute the abovementioned broad-based “Constitutional Reform Commission” to review the submissions and make recommendations to the National Assembly, where they would have to be ratified in accordance with the amendment stipulations of Art 164. If, perchance, any of the changes requested the dilution of the basic structure of the Constitution, Guyanese have been enlightened by its erudite Judiciary, a referendum would be necessary.

The President, unfortunately exhibiting the same executive overreach that his manifesto castigates, summarily dismissed its Report and demanded more “widespread” consultations. Sums of money have already been budgeted towards this end. This newspaper believes that the requisite constitutional changes to trim the powers of the Executive are needed before the next elections, scheduled in 2020. The Government needs to get on with its own programme, as defined in its Manifesto.