October 28, 2016

Indeed, constitutional reform not on agenda

Dear Editor,

Reference is made to Pastor Wendell Jeffrey’s missive in which he argues that constitutional reform will not happen soon (GT June 1). I agree with the Pastor. The country needs a federalist structure so that people can exercise powers rather than career politicians who are unwilling to part with their drunken powers.

The behaviour of the three political parties in parliament does not suggest they are serious about any meaningful constitutional reform. If there is one thing they have in common is to deny the people political powers.

I should note that in my studies on comparative constitutions, virtually no ruling politician in any part of the globe, save few in mature developed countries, has ever willingly reduced his/her powers while in office.

In Guyana, as indeed in almost every country, every party in opposition spoke the language of reform to empower the people. But when in office, they oppose(d) those very reforms they proposed and advocated. That is the nature of politicians. They hardly mean(t) what they say (said). That is why people should never trust politicians and never take at face value any promises they made (make).

In my trip to Guyana last February, I asked a sitting PPP MP who served in the last cabinet, to support a court case I wished to file to challenge the legality of the Burnham constitution. I was shocked at his response. The former minister said he saw nothing wrong with the Burnham constitution, and, therefore will not support any challenge to the constitution.

Apparently, he (as a lawyer) had no issue with the constitution not being approved by the population or the dictatorial powers given to the Chief Executive. Apparently, he does not feel the people should govern themselves.

I read a report last April where former President Bharrat Jagdeo stated that he has no problem with the Burnham constitution. I had hoped Jagdeo would support reform to give powers to the ordinary folks. But I guess I was mistaken as he too sees no need to allow the people to rule themselves.

The PPP had opposed the constitution between 1980 and 1992 and also opposed the rigged referendum in July 1978 as well as the drafting of the authoritarian constitution that Burnham proclaimed in late 1980.

As Pastor Jeffrey penned, “the PNC is adamantly opposed to any replacement of the Burnham constitution since it was the creation of their hero. Burnhamites yearn to return to Burnhamism, and, therefore, will not back any move to replace it. The AFC had stated that its first order of business would be to dump the Burnham constitution. In parliament, it made no effort to do so between 2006 and now. The AFC has now completed a year in office. Having now morphed into the PNC (APNU), constitutional reform is no longer a part of AFC’s vocabulary.”

So drafting a new constitution is out the window since all three parties seem pleased with the Burnham constitution. But the people are interested in reform and in exercising powers (to govern themselves). The three parties should at least have the people decide whether they want the Burnham constitution – let them vote on it or whether they want a new constitution or return to the British Constitution of 1966. The parties want the Burnham constitution; they can campaign for it and convince the people on its merit to have an all-embracing powerful government (Executive) that lord over the people worse than under colonial times.

It is noted that Chief Justice Ian Chang ruled that amendments to the Burnham constitution are unconstitutional unless approved by the population in a referendum. The inescapable conclusion from the ruling is that the peoples’ voice matters – the people must approve the constitution or its amendments. That is a wise ruling and it is standard practice in all democracies (even in Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, etc).

Since the Burnham constitution was never approved in a free and fair referendum, it follows logically, from Justice Chang’s ruling, that the Burnham constitution is unconstitutional. The people should be asked to approve or reject it.

I am of the view that all powers belong to the people. Government should have very limited, basic powers (such as in the conduct of external affairs, currency, etc). Virtually all other powers should belong to the people as in the US, Canada and UK.

The people should be given maximum powers to manage their own affairs (policing, education, housing, infrastructure, etc) in their communities with their own budget.

The people must demand that they be given a say in the acceptance of the Burnham constitution since the politicians of the three parties want it and have no plan to replace it. Failing that, the people must demand a new constitution with very limited powers given to politicians. Once the people are empowered, the politician’s ability to tap the treasury will be severely reduced.

I urge the PPP to table legislation to take powers away from the central government and give them to the communities.

Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram