Justice Navindra Singh has fixed September 12 for the commencement of trial in the challenge to the passage of the Natural Resource Fund (NRF) Act. The action was filed in April by Opposition Chief Whip Christopher Jones and Trade Unionist Norris Witter. They argued that due to the absence of the parliamentary Mace – the most significant symbol in the National Assembly and some APNU/AFC members not seated – the NRF Act cannot be regarded as being lawfully passed.
“They do not admit that they broke the Mace, they do not admit that they behaved in a riotous and vulgar manner. They claimed that the Speaker [Manzoor Nadir] unfairly and unlawfully prevented them from speaking, not accepting that it is their conduct that prevented anyone from speaking,” Attorney General Anil Nandlall, SC, told reporters after Friday’s preliminary hearing.
He said that he does not anticipate the trial to be lengthy because the issues are very clear.
“Of course, our evidence is simple. We are relying on the video that Parliament has in its system of the day’s proceedings. As you know, it was streamed live, and then the video is left. So, what we have done, is to extract that video, and put it on a flash drive, and that is all we need to put to the court because that is what transpired, and that is what we are relying on,” he said.
On the night of December 29, 2021, members of the APNU/AFC had dislodged the Mace from its position at the House Clerk’s desk in an attempt to prevent the Natural Resource Fund Bill from being passed. At one point, the Speaker’s Personal Assistant was seen latching onto the Mace while lying on the floor in an attempt to secure it, while the Opposition parliamentarians stood by hurling racial slurs and taunts at him. Despite the Opposition’s protest and its mounting calls for the Bill to be sent to a Special Select Committee, the Government went ahead and passed it.
Nandlall contended that the challenge is an abuse of the court process and without any legal basis. According to him, there is no principle known to the law, neither does the Constitution of Guyana nor the Standing Orders of the National Assembly require that the Mace must be present and in place for Parliament to exercise its constitutional power to make laws.
Witter argued that under Article 154A of the Constitution and Article 25 of the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, he has a fundamental right to political participation in the conduct of public affairs. He, however, contended that this right was violated with the passage of the Bill. In light of this, the Trade Unionist is asking the court to declare that pursuant to Article 154A, the Government in formulating an NRF policy, had a responsibility to engage in consultation.
Authority of Parliament
But Nandlall submitted that a lack of consultation does not in any manner affect the law power and authority of Parliament. He deposed, “It will be contended that the debates among the elected representatives of the people in the National Assembly which is a component of the legislative process constitutes consultation.” He said that the Natural Resource Fund Bill received widespread national consultations. To support his argument, he reminded that the legislation was a promise contained in his party’s manifesto for the 2020 National Elections – a document he has included as an exhibit. He said, too, that the manifesto itself was a product of five years of public consultations from 2015 to 2020, across all 10 regions, including a grand public consultation held at New Thriving Restaurant, Providence, on February 17, 2019.
Since the passage of the legislature last December, the Government has established the Natural Resource Fund Board. Following parliamentary approval, the Government has made two withdrawals from the fund amounting to $83.3 billion which were transferred to the Consolidated Fund to finance national development priorities.
However, Jones and Witter want the High Court to declare null, void and of no effect, all actions taken by anyone, including the Minister of Finance, Dr Ashni Singh, pursuant to the passage of the Bill, or the constitution of any Board under the NRF. They are also seeking orders necessary to ensure that the NRF is replenished to the extent of all sums disbursed from it.
Meanwhile, the Attorney General submitted that he maintains “most resolutely” that the Natural Resource Fund Act was lawfully, validly, and properly passed, and received the due assent of President Dr Irfaan Ali in accordance with the Constitution.
Jones and Witter are being represented by Roysdale Forde, SC, and Attorney-at-Law Selwyn Pieters. Besides Nandlall, Nadir, and Singh, the other respondents to Jones and Witter’s action are: the Parliament Office and Clerk of the National Assembly Sherlock Isaacs.
Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Committee of Privileges has recommended the suspension of eight A Partnership for National Unity/Alliance For Change (APNU/AFC) Members of Parliament who participated in the infamous Mace grab and disruptions of the National Assembly sitting on December 29, 2021.
The Committee was tasked with considering a Privilege Motion which stated that the eight Opposition Members who attempted to prevent the second and third readings of the Natural Resource Fund Bill No 20 of 2021, conducted themselves in a gross disorderly, contumacious, and disrespectful manner, and repeatedly ignored the authority of the Assembly and that of the Speaker, thereby committing contempt and breaches of privileges. The eight MPs in question are: Opposition Chief Whip Christopher Jones, Ganesh Mahipaul, Sherod Duncan, Natasha Singh-Lewis, Annette Ferguson, Vinceroy Jordan, Tabitha Sarabo-Halley, and Maureen Philadelphia.
After seeking an extension to its one-month timeline to consider the violations committed by the members, the Committee finally completed the report and submitted it to be laid in the National Assembly for debate. The next sitting is slated for Thursday, July 21.
According to the report, the Committee’s findings were based on video recordings, statements by staff of the Parliament Office and the Arthur Chung Conference Centre, eyewitness accounts by other Members of the House, media reporters and the public, both locally and internationally.
Additionally, each Opposition Member was written to and asked to “show cause” why sanctions should not be meted out to them. Their responses were received and considered by the Committee.