Stabroek News. Editorial. April 7, 2008
The walk-out of the opposition from Parliament on March 27 was an ominous augury for members of the public who were looking to the assembly for decisive and cohesive steps to address crime.
As we had feared, the stalemate in Parliament will not be dissolved by window dressing compliments of an assortment of groups presenting themselves under the rubric of civil society. Any parliamentary engagement between the government and opposition that requires mature compromise will suffer from the inflexibility of the PPP/C benches and the inability of the opposition to change this. It was no doubt in recognition of this that following the January 26 slaughter at Lusignan and accelerated by the February 17 massacre at Bartica that an ad hoc group of civil society members was invited to the Office of the President with representatives of the government, governing party and opposition parties. The civil society members were clearly to act as a leavening and help facilitate important agreements in the presence of the President.
The series of meetings at the Office of the President between the stakeholders and President Jagdeo led to the crafting of a motion to give effect to the agreements reached by “consensus”. PM Hinds’ subsequent motion in Parliament was a mirror image of those agreements and when the opposition pressed for what were eminently reasonable amendments such as equitable access to the state media, the government benches balked on the grounds that these amendments were not the consensus of the stakeholders.
It is incredible that the government – and the stakeholders – would believe that any agreement made outside of the National Assembly could be taken to Parliament by way of motion and be immune to the fullest consideration by the House.
It is incredible that they would seek to impose an agreement on Parliament and have it be a real rubber stamp. If the liniment applied by the stakeholders resulted in some movement between the two sides then it was up to Parliament to decide if it should be fleshed out. True to form, the government exposed its inflexibility and tried to excuse it by saying it was sticking to the letter of the agreement. Is this not a marginalizing of Parliament?
In the numbing aftermath of the massacres, the aridity of parliamentary life was exposed by the need to have civil society press for many of the things that the government and the opposition were supposed to have agreed many years ago. To then try to circumscribe any further parliamentary input on measures that could improve political cooperation at the highest level was unwise. The stakeholders’ agreement was a catalyst to engagement and a test of whether the government was willing to meet the opposition part way. It could definitely not have been an agreement cast in stone.
Under those circumstances, the opposition walk-out from Parliament was understandable. Anything else would have enabled the government to engage in a cosmetic exercise at the expense of the public interest.
The unwillingness to give a little on important issues such as fair access to the state media, the inclusion of Article 13 and support for freedom of information legislation is now glaringly evident. What is shocking is that there would have been some stakeholders at that meeting who opposed any of those three open society hallmarks: fair access to the government-owned media, greater involvement of civil society in decisions like those made at the stakeholders’ meeting and legislation which allows members of the public the right to seek information on the state’s activities. Which of the stakeholders would dare oppose such provisions? Or is that the government would have had to show its hand on these issues?
Inevitably, one of the government’s allies rose to its assistance; the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Guyana which in its original incarnation played a heroic role in fighting the undemocratic ways of the TUC and the government of the period. It plays a different role now. It said in a letter published in Thursday’s edition of Stabroek News that it was concerned at the walk-out by the opposition. Not losing the opportunity to say that it represented the majority of the unionized workers in Guyana, FITUG then had the gumption to say that the amendments sought to the motion “would have had to be as a result of another meeting of all the stakeholders who had agreed on this document”. That is not so and should never be. FITUG would have been better advised to state clearly where it stood on Article 13, freedom of information legislation and equitable access to the state media and to call for a mature agreement between the government and the opposition.
Several senior government officials have since used the “consensus” argument knowing full well that it is an excuse. In no gathering of dozens of civil society entities – some of them marginally functional and others supportive of the government – can there be a real chance of consensus. But there could certainly be a broad consensus on issues or even the majority opinion being taken. This is how the decision-making should have been driven at the stakeholders’ meeting.
Are there any stakeholders who gathered at the Office of the President who are opposed to any of the three amendments proposed by the opposition? Can they make their positions public and provide reasons?
Considering the importance of making it clear to the criminals that the country stands united against their outrages the government should invite a representative number of the stakeholders to another meeting to review the amendments presented by the opposition so that Parliament can speak with one voice on crime.