The passage this week of the Telecommunications (Amendment) Bill 2016 exposed citizens to the work, possibilities and shortcomings of “Committees” in our parliamentary system of governance. In this system, Members of Parliament (MPs) are supposed to be engaged in three tasks – representing the interests of their constituencies, legislating laws introduced by the Executive, and oversight of the Government’s work.
While MPs are supposed to be “representing” at all times, they are afforded the opportunity to selectively perform the last two in the two types of committees of Parliament. These are the “Select” ad hoc committees that consider specific Bills and issues that have been laid before the Assembly and “Standing Committees”, which are constituted with every Parliament and generally exist for the duration of the Parliament. The Committee to which the Telecommunications Bill was sent since 2013 by the then PPP Executive, was an example of the “Select” type. The Public Accounts Committee exemplifies a Standing Committee, in this case one that is supposed to scrutinise the work of the Executive. In addition to “scrutinising”, Standing Committees such as the “Privileges Committee” are also constituted to facilitate the functioning of the National Assembly.
Committees are crucial for the entrenchment of substantive democracy in the parliamentary system, but we saw one of the constraints exposed this week. When the Telecommunications Bill was originally introduced, the members of the then Opposition parties APNU and AFC on the Select Committee felt that too many powers were placed into the hands of the subject Minister. Since at that time there was the unique situation where the Opposition parties also had a majority in the Parliament, the Government was unable to pass the legislation.
While there must have been some MPs from the Opposition benches that felt strongly enough about the liberalisation of the telecommunications sector, because of the power of the political parties to insist their MPs literally “toe the party line”, the duty to represent their constituencies’ interest was sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. The party Whips can “whip” support into line for their party’s position because of their power to “recall” contrary MPs. The political expediency was exposed when the APNU and AFC parties – now in government – supported the bill in the new Select Committee formed for this Parliament and was able to have it passed on the floor of the House since they also had a majority of votes there.
The PPP, now in Opposition, objected to the powers placed into the hands of the Telecommunications Minister. The shoe was now on the other foot. The challenge for greater substantive democracy, then, would be to facilitate MPs to take a more independent stance when Bills are being considered in Committee and in the National Assembly. In the US system where there is a more explicit “division of powers” between the Executive and the Legislature, the former does not sit in the latter, as is the case here, and Members of Congress are more independent. One way to rectify this matter here would be to eliminate the “party list” system where the party leaders have total control over which candidate on their list during elections are later selected as parliamentarians. This power, along with the desire of the MPs to move into Executive office, keeps them behind the “party line”. A reversion to a total constituency system of elections would also assist in allowing MPs to better fulfil their representative function.
The Parliament of Guyana also has Standings Committees, including the four Sectoral Committees – Economic, Natural Resources, Social Services and Foreign Affairs – which are not used sufficiently to scrutinise the work of the Executive. In the instance of the Telecommunications Bill, the Economic Services Committee could have called officials of the Government and the telecommunications companies to give evidence on the issue. In the presence of the media and with the assistance of experts they could hire, democracy would have been better served. But this was trumped by party discipline.