The President has done what many, I included, feared he would – but still hoped he would not do – prorogue the National Assembly. In so doing President Ramotar was exercising a power that then Prime Minister Forbes Burnham retained for himself under the Constitution of 1980.
The power to prorogue which Mr. Burnham as Prime Minister enjoyed under the Independence Constitution through the Governor General was intended for a different purpose than for which Mr. Ramotar used it. It was intended simply to close one session of the National Assembly. With each session of the National Assembly now firmly set by Standing Orders authorised under Article 165 of the Constitution, the prorogation should have become otiose and abolished. The use of it is clearly a retrograde step.
The Independence Constitution was repealed and replaced by the 1980 Constitution which was facilitated by the infamous Referendum of 1978 in which phantom voters outnumbered real voters by a factor of 4 to 1. The 1980 Constitution introduced by Mr. Burnham abolished the office of Governor General and created for himself the executive presidency. Under the Constitution, Mr. Burnham made himself paramount over the National Assembly which he could prorogue or dissolve at any time and for any purpose including the preemption of any attempt by the National Assembly to impeach him.
Of course with his stranglehold over the elections Mr. Burnham never had to bother about prorogation or dissolution as he packed the National Assembly with the product of his rigging under a list system in which he – and not the electors – decided who entered the National Assembly as PNC Members of Parliament.
The reform process of the late nineties tried to limit Presidential powers by attempting to remove his power of dissolution in the case of impeachment and to introduce a new sanction – that of a vote of no confidence in the Government, the success of which automatically triggers fresh elections. For some strange reason the drafters, many of whom are still around, did nothing to set any limits or define any circumstances in which the powers of prorogation or dissolution could or could not be used.
The result is that the framers of the 1999 reforms left us with a Constitution that nominally gives the National Assembly the power to move a vote of no confidence in the President’s government, but at the same time gives the President the power to pre-empt the exercise of that power by the simple act of prorogation or dissolution.
It is hard to believe that the big men who were involved in the Constitutional reform process could spend so much time and money and leave such gaping absurdity in the Constitution. The cynics suspect that rather than that being an oversight it was exactly what the two political behemoths – the PPP and the PNC – wanted. It was the kind of autocratic arrangement in which any power-obsessed government revels.
It is therefore just another of the vulgarities in the existing Constitution which citizens have to accept unless and until they can get the PPP and the PNC to scrap the 1980 Constitution and replace it with a more democratic one. As the WPA had always feared, it was never meant to work in the interest of the people. Unfortunately while they have been proved right, they have done little to pursue constitutional reform and must share some of the blame for the mess in which the country finds itself. It must surely have been possible to persuade its partners in the APNU to be more aggressive in this regard.
The November 10 Prorogation
The general consensus is that the Ramotar’s prorogation can last as much as six months, in accordance with Article 59 of the Constitution. I have received from a number of persons questions concerning the financial implications of the prorogation and for how long the situation can in fact last. Readers would be surprised to know that the Government can continue to spend for one full year without having to go to the National Assembly, assuming, but not suggesting, that the PPP/C will be re-elected even on a plurality at the next elections.
The Minister of Finance already has authority to spend for 2014 by way of the Appropriations Act. That takes him to December 31, 2014. Then Article 219 (1) of the Constitution gives him authority to spend money to meet expenditure necessary to carry on the services of the Government of Guyana for up to four months from the beginning of the year. That takes it to April 30 without any parliamentary approval. Note that the prorogation can last for as long as six months from November 10 which ends on May 9, 2015.
The Constitution gives the President yet another draconian and paramount power and that is the power to dissolve the National Assembly for any or no reason or purpose. Mr. Ramotar has already hinted at this option which after November 10, can no longer be taken lightly. To take full advantage of the constitutional provisions and to extend and enjoy the period to run the government without a parliament the President can choose to dissolve the National Assembly on April 30, 2015, the date the spending authority under Article 219 (1) expires.
Now assuming that the President dissolves the National Assembly on that date, elections have to be held within three months (article 61) which brings us to July 31, 2015. Enter once more Article 219 of the Constitution, but this time paragraph (3) which allows the Minister of Finance to draw down from the Consolidated Fund money to meet expenditure on the public services until the expiry of three months beginning on the date the National Assembly first meets after the dissolution.
And if the date of dissolution is April 30,the next session of the National Assembly must be held within four months of dissolution which brings us to August 31. So if the National Assembly meets on August 31 there is automatic spending authority under Article 219 (3) that runs to November 30.
Assuming the PPP/C gets a plurality or majority at the next election, it would mean that the PPP/C would have run the country without a National Assembly since July 10, 2014 – a period of 508 days. That is incredible, but true.
And that is only one problem. Another is the Standing Orders of the National Assembly which make it impossible for one Parliament to sanction any Minister or Member of Parliament for any act, however egregious, committed during an earlier Parliament. The danger here is frightening: knowing that they are effectively immune from sanction, Ministers and MP’s would feel free to act or to spend in the most irresponsible, if not illegal manner.
Believe it or not, that is how our Constitution and the National Assembly work.
But just before closing, it may be worth noting that the prorogation is not totally exclusive: there is the possibility of impeachment which could see the Speaker – not the Clerk – summoning the National Assembly to vote on the Motion. Since the vote requires a two-thirds support to take it forward, the chances of success are zero but yet symbolic.
As we deconstruct, dissect and decode the Constitution we find that it gets from bad to worse, from democratic to dictatorial, from reasonable to illogical.
We need a new Constitution, like yesterday.