Constitutional reform dead on arrival without Opposition’s cooperation and support

Guyana’s Constitution, as reformed by the PPP Government, especially between 2000 and 2002, has been generally lauded in and out of Guyana as one of the most advanced and progressive constitutions in Caricom and in the wider developing countries. The President of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) recently acknowledged this. This in no way means Guyana has a perfect Constitution, and that constitutional reforms should be kicked to the backburner. The PPP Government has stated that constitutional reform is one of its priorities between now and 2025. But, because constitutional reform is one of the Irfaan Ali-led Government’s priorities, it does not mean it will happen. It cannot happen without the cooperation and support of the Opposition.
The PNC has never had an appetite for constitutional reforms. Without a two-thirds majority in Parliament, constitutional reform is dead on arrival. Even a vote in Parliament on any constitutional provision is not appropriate because, without the effective functioning of the Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Reforms, nothing can come forward for Parliament to vote on. If anything comes forward without the Opposition members participating in the functioning of the committee, the reforms would be deemed unacceptable, and claims of no consultation will be made. In any case, the Opposition would vote against it in a sitting of the whole Parliament and the reform provisions would be dead on arrival.
The truth is that outside of the dictatorial Burnham Constitution of 1980, the PNC has shown no interest in a progressive constitution. After the December 2011 elections, the PNC (APNU/AFC) used its one-seat majority to take control of the Committee on Constitutional Reforms, electing David Granger as the Chair of the Commission. Between 2011 and 2015, during the 9th Parliament, there were only two meetings of the committee. The first one lasted less than one minute because it was adjourned as soon as Granger was elected as Chair. The second meeting lasted for no more than fifteen minutes, during which it was decided that I would prepare and present a summary of all the recommendations that were made by two constitution commissions – chaired by Bernard De Santos and Ralph Ramkarran – and in that summary, the list of recommendations that were already enacted and those still to be included in the constitution. I did it within one week. No further meetings were held between 2012 and 2015.
In 2015, the Government changed, Granger became President, and the PNC elected Basil Williams as Chair of the Committee. Between 2015 and 2020, the constitutional committee held two meetings. The first was held in 2015, lasting no more than one minute, during which Williams was elected as chair. The next meeting was held, if my memory serves me well, soon after the No-Confidence Motion, during a period that it became illegal for parliamentary committees to meet. In spite of all the big talk about constitutional reforms, the PNC has shown no belly for constitutional reforms between 2006 and present. Now that the PNC has finally come around to electing an Opposition Leader, Aubrey Norton has said that this is one of his priorities.
In fact, last week, the new Chair, Attorney General Anil Nandlall, convened a meeting of the committee. The meeting had to start without any Opposition MP, and only towards the end of the meeting did an MP from the Opposition show up. This total disregard for constitutional reform is not new. They had control of the committee between 2011 and 2020, for a full decade, and not one piece of constitutional reform was discussed or happened in that time. The only things related to the Constitution that occurred between 2015 and 2020 when the PNC controlled the Government and parliament were several violations of the Constitution. For instance, Granger appointed a Chairman of GECOM in breach of the Constitution, as he started the road to election rigging. The total abrogation of the No-Confidence vote in Parliament saw more than two years of violation of the Constitution. Last week’s disregard for the constitutional committee in Parliament makes a total mockery of Norton’s fake demand for constitutional reforms.
I hope that some of the mistakes we made in the reform agenda in 2000 to 2002 parliamentary period (7th and 8th Parliaments) can be corrected in this term. Outside of the Burnham Constitution, designed to prop up a dictatorship, the Bharrat Jagdeo-led constitutional reforms provided the most extensive platform for shared governance. The shared governance provisions made in respect to appointing the Chancellor and the Chief Justice were mistakes, and until those provisions are corrected, we will have to live with acting Chancellors and Chief Justices. The requirement to go beyond meaningful consultations and achieve agreements is one destined to fail from the beginning. It is incumbent on this 11th Parliament to make the change now. But without Norton and the PNC’s support, that constitutional reform is dead on arrival.
The present Constitution is one filled with opportunities for shared governance. These opportunities could be strengthened with more reforms. But what is the point of more reforms if we do not utilise the opportunities that the present Constitution amply provides for shared governance? Is the intention simply to add pages to the present Constitution? What is needed is commitment from all to enforce the shared governance provisions of the Constitution.