Holy Thursday: the Crucifixion of Parliamentary Democracy

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(Following is an opinion piece written by former Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Mohabir Anil Nandlall, MP)

Notwithstanding the deep reservations, the multiplicity of concerns and complaints and the widespread fear and anxiety expressed about this SARA Bill from Guyanese across this land and important stakeholder organisations, last Thursday, the Government tossed all of them aside and ram shod this Bill through the National Assembly.

Almost every speaker on the Government’s side, in their speeches recognised that the Bill confers exceptional powers and contains extraordinary provisions that will change the legal landscape of our country, once enacted. Significantly, every member of the Opposition who spoke highlighted the egregious nature of the Bill, the arbitrary powers which it confers and the threat which it poses to private property.

Notwithstanding, the Government remained unmoved. They all chorused the erroneous but politically convenient argument that they were discharging Guyana’s obligation under the United Nations Convention against corruption and that this Bill is necessary to recover stolen State Assets. They deliberately refused to recognise that Guyana’s obligation under the said UN Convention is much more broad-based but more significantly, that this specific aspect which deals with the civil forfeiture of assets derived from proceeds of crime are already captured in Guyana’s Anti-money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism legislation.

The Government’s speakers, intentionally, peddled the misguided contention that the Bill would only target those who stole State assets, thereby conveying a most myopic impression of the Bill. They refused to acknowledge that the term “State Asset” is not defined in the Bill and the Bill vests in the Director and his most junior staff, an extraordinary power in determining what is “State assets”; thereby, practically placing in the hands of a very petty officer, an exceptional power which jeopardises private property everywhere. Simply put, it is the worst statutory expression of arbitrary power against private property in Guyana’s history.

More fundamentally, by their actions in the National Assembly, the Government has succeeded in confirming all the criticisms, all the reservations, all the concerns and all the fears expressed about this Bill. The debate on this Bill was supposed to go up to 10pm. This time line was insisted upon by the Government’s chief whip with whom the Speaker agreed, as is the norm. Because of its very nature and its antecedent controversy, a responsible, democratic and accountable Government would have gone the extra-mile and extend the debate beyond 10pm, so that it can adequately assure the populace that their concerns, their fears and their anxieties are misplaced. This Government did the exact opposite. They shut down the debate, confirming those fears, concerns and anxieties. In so doing, they have also demonstrated their own abysmal inability to defend the Bill. They also knew that I was the lead Speaker for the Opposition on this Bill. It is not without significance that they shut down the debate immediately before I was about to speak.

Parliament is one of the organs of democratic power under our Constitution. The word “Parliament” has its genesis in “parli” , the latin derivative which means “speak” and the French infinitive “parler” , “to speak.” In guillotining the debate, the Government has shut down the voices of the elected representatives of half of the population of this country, using a mere one seat majority. This must mark the lowest ebb to which parliamentary democracy has descended since the return of free and fair elections to this land in 1992. I was shocked by who moved the motion to shut down the debate. It was Raphael Trotman. A person who has done a lot of work over the years in portraying himself as a moderate in a grouping of authoritarians. He had professed that it is the very reason why he left the PNC. It either demonstrates the power of the herd mentality, or he simply fooled us all. The ABC countries must be ruing about their wasted investment.

Significantly, when Mr. Trotman moved the motion, I looked, specifically, at Prime Minster Moses Nagamootoo, the leader of the House. He appeared clueless and downed his head in apparent disappointment. His demeanor and action conveyed two messages to me: firstly, he was not consulted about the move and therefore, he is obviously not in charge; and secondly, as an experienced politician he knew that the Government had committed a colossal political blunder.  He must have momentarily forgotten that he is not part of a democratic outfit.

In my negotiations with the Government’s chief whip and the Speaker prior to the sitting about the number of speakers who will be presenting, I was told that the sitting will not extend beyond 10pm because it is Holy Thursday and that date holds great significance in the Christian Community. I agreed. I indicated that it is the Government that chose Holy Thursday to debate this crucial Bill and therefore, rather than curtail the discussion at 10pm, we should continue it another day. My suggestion was rejected. The debate never reached 10pm. It was shut down by Mr. Trotman just after 9pm. The irony is that most of the Government’s MPs remained in the lounge well after midnight, part-taking in alcoholic refreshments which were brought in during the sitting.

Now that the Bill has been “passed” in the National Assembly, we will now see to whom it is lawfully applicable. Therein, lies who will have the last laugh.

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