Was Whittaker articulating government policy?

On March 7, 2014, the Stabroek News carried an article in which Mr Norman Whittaker, Minister in the Ministry of Local Government is reported as asserting that the “vast majority of the populace is not prepared for the holding of local government polls by August 1st” and that “to go ahead would result in the waste of a lot of money.”

Even by the standards of inanity now associated with the “vast majority” of the PPP/C and government spokespersons, Mr Whittaker’s statement is outstanding for its disconnect with the Constitution of Guyana and the laws relating to local government elections. But it may be more than simple ignorance: it shows the little or no regard which PPP/C ministers have for democracy and the drift to autocracy which Guyana has suffered since democracy returned to it in 1992 and the last local government elections were held in 1994.

Even if Mr Whittaker had read only up to Article 12 of the constitution he would be aware that “local government by freely elected representatives of the people is an integral part of the democratic organisation of the State.” He would also have some passing familiarity with the fact that Chapter VII in its entirety is devoted to Local Democracy, and that Article 71 pronounces that “Local Government is a vital aspect of democracy and shall be organised so as to involve as many people as possible in the task of managing and developing the communities in which they live.”

I do not for a moment believe that Mr Whittaker is unfamiliar with those articles. What I believe is his real problem – apart from the dread that local government elections will be disastrous for the PPP/C – is Article 75 which allows for local democratic organs to be autonomous. Not surprisingly, a party whose article of faith seems based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, has successfully delayed local government elections for seventeen years, depriving citizens of their constitutional rights.

The citizens of Guyana expect that those responsible for the holding of local government elections will discharge their constitutional and statutory duties. We have a full-time Elections Commission (GECOM) which between 2007 and 2013 inclusive, but excluding election year 2011 benefited from ten billion, four hundred and seventy six million dollars ($10,476 million).

The Local Authorities (Elections) Act gives the power (and the duty) to fix the date for local government elections to the Minister of Local Government. Mr Whittaker has no discretion as to whether citizens want such elections or not and he should be confronted in the National Assembly with his unbelievable nonsense. Moreover, the President or his Governance Advisor must tell the country whether Mr Whittaker was articulating government policy.

The parliamentary opposition and civil society organisations must now provide the leadership to stop this abuse of citizens’ constitutional rights and do everything that is necessary to ensure that local government elections which were due since 1997 are held no later than August 1, 2014.

Region 9 flood relief was distributed through PPP/C party office

‘Business Page’ in this past Sunday Stabroek noted how the government has undermined the regional administrations and the local democratic organs across the country. For more than ten years, it has failed to pass the necessary laws and to establish the Local Government Commission required by the Constitution of Guyana to allow for operational and financial autonomy of those bodies. In that column I reminded readers that Article 12 of the Constitution states that “Local government by freely elected representatives of the people is an integral part of the democratic organisation of the State.” Instead of democracy, the PPP/C has restored party paramountcy in its vilest form.

One day after the column appeared I learn through the online news medium Demerara Waves that during the PPP/C’s electioneering campaign in Region 9 this weekend, that party’s regional headquarters was the location from which hundreds of persons were paid $20,000 in cash. The ostensible purpose of the payment was “flood relief.”

It is entirely irrelevant whether the recipients were told that the money came from the public Treasury and not the PPP/C. Each of the ten administrative regions has its own office, staff and transportation facilities. It is wrong, and egregiously so, that public funds are disbursed from any party office. I would like to think – though with this dishonest government and its political arm the equally dishonest PPP/C, no one can be sure – that following the flood, a proper, auditable system was used to identify eligible persons for “flood relief.”

Yet, this government, which for years had robbed the Amerindians of their entitlements under the Amerindian Act 2006, heartlessly made the flood victims wait for five months until the PPP/C elections entourage rolled into town to make the “flood relief” payment at their party’s office. I would not be surprised if the payment was deceptively an inducement to the poor Amerindians to attend the PPP/C rally and had little to do with “flood relief.” It is after all, how the party has commoditised the Amerindians of this country, particularly since 1992. It is about paramountcy of the party which Guyanese had deluded themselves had died in 1992. In fact paramountcy has matured into a semi-criminal enterprise.

This is just the latest case of the government using the prorogation of the National Assembly as a cover to continue misusing, mismanaging and misappropriating public moneys in a crude and shameless vote-buying national exercise. Even as the non-government parties campaign to unseat the PPP/C, they should remain alert to and oppose all the abuses which are coming to light.

As a member of civil society and of the Committee for Human Rights and Free and Fair Elections, I hope that Gecom, the Electoral Assistance Bureau and all those who will pronounce on the November 28 national and regional elections are taking note of these malpractices. The stage is being set for massively unfair elections.

Local government financing and democracy

The reader should not wonder why in the caption of this column ‘democracy’ does not precede ‘financing.’ Obviously it should but the reader will also appreciate the procrustean attempt to fit what is at first blush a political and local governance issue into a business column. Still, it is clear that our Constitution in fact acknowledges the importance of financing to local government and specifically addresses financing in three Articles under Chapter 7 of the Constitution dealing with local democracy.

It is often said, and by no less a person than the President of the country, that Guyana has one of the best constitutions in the world. That is of course true if one is prepared to overlook the fatal flaws that permit an elected dictator who is more equal than the rest of the citizens, an emasculated Cabinet and National Assembly unable or unwilling to carry out their constitutional responsibilities and a political class that would cynically ignore those sections of the Constitution that they find inconvenient.

The constitution
– in theory

Notwithstanding these serious limitations, one area in which the Constitution is on paper very strong relates to local government. The problem is that our Parliament which comprises the National Assembly and the president has failed to carry out their constitutional duties. Article 12 states that “Local government by freely elected representatives of the people is an integral part of the democratic organisation of the State” which Article 71 (1) recognises as “a vital aspect of democracy” and requires that it “be organised so as to involve as many people as possible in the task of managing and developing the communities in which they live.”

The Constitution does not leave it there and imposes on Parliament the obligation “to provide for the institution of a country-wide system of local government through the establishment of organs of local democratic power as an integral part of the political organisation of the State.” Such local democratic organs are constitutionally autonomous and the decisions they make are binding upon the communities and citizens of their areas.

Helpfully the Constitution also provides that for the purposes of local government administration the country should be divided into regions, sub-regions and other subdivisions as Parliament deems fit. The relevant considerations in such a determination include population, the physical size, the geographical characteristics, the economic resources and the existing and planned infrastructure of each area, all with a view to ensuring that the area is or has the potential for becoming economically viable.

Article 74 (1) lays down as “the primary duty of local democratic organs” the efficient management and development of their areas and to provide leadership by example. Article 74 (3) imposes on local democratic organs the duty to maintain and protect public property, improve working and living conditions, promote the social and cultural life of the people, raise the level of civic consciousness, preserve law and order, consolidate the rule of law and safeguard the rights of citizens.”

The practice is different
Local government elections not having been held since 1994, this “integral part of the democratic organisation” has been in abeyance for nearly fifteen years, something that everyone seems to accept as the norm of this new democratic era.

The Constitution recognizes that the discharge of the obligations of the local government bodies requires financing; Article 76 empowers Parliament to permit the regional democratic councils to raise their own revenues and to use such resources for the benefit and welfare of their areas. The Constitution does not specify the bases on which these bodies may raise such funds but Article 77 A requires Parliament to make a law for the “the formulation and implementation of objective criteria for the purpose of the allocation of resources to, and the garnering of resources by local democratic organs,” being the regions, sub-regions and other sub-divisions into which Parliament divides Guyana.

There is some amount of confusion arising out of Article 77 (of the Constitution) which requires the development programme of each region to be integrated into the national development plans, and for the government to allocate funds to each region to enable it to implement its development programme. The Constitution framers might have thought that the meaning of the word ‘development’ is so self-evident that no definition is necessary, but I fail to understand how a “development programme” can mean the annual office cost in the operational budget of any region.

Parliamentary failure
What is disappointing – if not shocking – is that we have had two full-term parliaments since these changes were made to the Constitution but the parliamentarians have done nothing to give effect to those changes. Still, it does not seem particularly shocking that a National Assembly that could cynically pass laws to postpone local government elections on several occasions would have any difficulty in otherwise undermining the autonomy of local government bodies, including the means and necessity to raise money to enable those bodies to carry out their mandate. Consequently there is no effective local government and the paradox we are faced with is of a central government minister exercising operational control over regions and local democratic organs.

To realise how extreme the situation is one only has to look at the National Estimates to recognise that the country’s ten administrative regions are dependent entirely on the central government for their revenues, a situation that has few if any parallels around the world. By way of example, I refer to a review by me of the new constitution of Kenya published in the Stabroek News of November 30, 2010. Under that constitution, only the national government has the power to impose income taxes; value added taxes; excise taxes as well as customs and other duties on the import and export of goods.

No silver bullet
The governance problems in Guyana are so endemic that there is unlikely to be any silver bullet solution and while we heard first of devolution and later power-sharing, in my view the issue of local government financing has received far too little attention. This centralization of power and control of the national purse on the one hand and the restrictions on regional and local government bodies to garner their own resources are counterproductive to good governance and democracy as envisaged in Guyana’s Constitution.

The failure of the Ninth Parliament and more specifically the PPP/C and the PNCR to agree on the establishment of the Local Government Commission required under Article 78 A was a major hurdle to local government elections. There was little talk if any of the reform of local government financing. That is a pity.

And it is not as if there is any major hurdle in accessing good examples. We do not have to go as far as Kenya – just look at the Amerindian Act of 2006. Guyana has witnessed and suffered from the excesses of central controls. For all the powerful arguments for power-sharing, they will come to naught without improved local democracy and efficiencies.

Studies show that the revision of funding sources is a key part of the reform of local government and that “local government finance is the litmus test for central government’s commitment to local government.” That is not to say that there is such a thing as an optimal level for local government, and without exception, the size and structure of local government varies often in relation to the functions imposed on them. What we have in Guyana is a situation in which the functions of local government bodies are defined but the resources to carry out those functions are controlled by others.

Given the long absence of meaningful local government it might be useful to restate what are regarded as the main reasons underlying the system of local government, as a manifestation of local democracy and a provider of local services. Locally elected politicians make decisions on behalf of local communities and serve as a safeguard against central government domination, while the strengths of local government as a democratic instrument are its closeness to the population, its elected status, its accessibility and the opportunity it provides for public participation in the democratic process.

Even for those countries with an established tradition of local government there is the continuing effort to determine the right size to ensure local democracy and economic efficiency in the delivery of local public services. Various models have been developed to meet these two, often contradictory, demands but we need not worry too much about these. Here in Guyana, if we ignore for the moment the system of village councils we had up to the sixties, we really are starting from scratch and have numerous examples on which to draw.

The 2011 Manifesto of the PPP/C did not see local government financing as an issue which they thought needed addressing. Whether the other parties will share that perspective we will soon know.

Minister Lall did not address the key issues I raised

In my letter appearing in the Kaieteur News and the Stabroek News on March 12 and 13 respectively, I relied on the Local Government Elections Act, appearing on an official website, as the statutory basis for my position. I should have known better and corrected myself promptly on the internet edition of the Stabroek News website.

Nevertheless, and even after I had done so, Minister of Local Government, Mr. Kellawan Lall, decided to take the low ground, through going way beyond the error, and engaging in language and conduct unbecoming of a Minister of Government. This is also regrettable.

More significantly, Minister Lall did not address the key issues I raised about him: that he instructed the Auditor General contrary to the Constitution; that he set himself up as a tribunal to pronounce guilt on two NDC employees; and that the law gives to the Minister too much control over local authorities, control that is inconsistent with the relevant Constitutional provisions.

In closing, I reiterate my position on the aforementioned key issue, and associated ministerial overreach. I, also repeat my call to the Honourable Minister to clear the air, should he so desire, but this time with decorum more becoming.

The Minister of Local Government should not have control over local authorities and their elections

On March 8, I penned a letter ‘Under the constitution Minister Lall cannot instruct the Auditor General’ (SN) after he informed the nation that he had so instructed, and that the Auditor General (ag), had duly complied. After writing that letter, I read an equally strange and uninformed disclosure by the Minister in connection with a proposed sale of a playground in Nandy Park to a “prominent, very well connected businessman.”

The Minister revealed at a press conference that he summoned persons to his office, and that they pleaded not guilty “in that they did not know the law.” For good measure, the Minister, having set himself up as a tribunal, then ruled that “it was quite clear they are all knowledgeable of the law.”

I regret that I cannot say the same of the Minister, a senior member of this government. Although Mr Lall displays a regrettable ignorance of relevant, key provisions of the constitution and the laws that are specific to his post, we tend to regard such behaviour by a minister of Mr Lall’s standing as providing light relief, not worthy of a comment. But this time it is different. As Minister of Local Government, Mr Lall is empowered under section 3 of the Local Authorities (Elections) Act Cap 28:03, for the “general direction and supervision over the registration of voters and over the administrative conduct of elections.”

In my view, the electoral system should be entirely taken away from the political authority and vested in the Guyana Elections Commission. Some may say that this is still not ideal, since the commissioners are all political appointees. But at least in GECOM, the Carter model prevails with both government and opposition parties represented, under an independent chairman.

That model was intended for a limited time only and it is more than time for it to be changed. But we should never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The ruling party should go through with the agreement for an amendment of the law to remove the control which the Minister of Local Government has over the local authorities and their elections. That will help to foster confidence in the electoral process.

Finally, let me recommend that our ministers replace their in-house public relations contract employees with in-house attorneys-at-law. Larger private sector entities ensure they have in-house legal expertise to advise them on the laws and prevent them embarrassing themselves either in public or private.

Edit: I have been informed, and can confirm that section 3 referred to in my letter was changed in 2009 so that the fear about the Minister’s control of elections has been removed.

His control of the local authorities and city councils remain however.