Kaieteur News editorial, Tuesday 03 February 2009
Last Friday, in a speech at a function organised by the Guyana Manufacturing
and Services Association Ltd (GMSA), the Speaker of the National Assembly,
Mr Harinarayan (Ralph) Ramkarran, suggested that the time has come for
Guyana to consider having full-time Members of Parliament (MPs).
Dealing with the specific topic, 'The National Assembly as a facilitator and
promoter of investment and business activities in Guyana', he argued that,
"The establishment of strong and independent relationships between business
organisations and Parliamentary committees is proper and desirable, as it is
the duty of all stakeholders on both sides to seek out opinions and to offer
He proposed that the vehicle for the dialogue between the business and
political communities may be the Economic Services Committee.
Mr Ramkarran was, of course, alluding to one of the four sectoral committees
in Parliament that had been established to enable the Legislative branch to
"scrutinize" the activities of the Executive. The others are the Natural
Resources, Social Services and Foreign Affairs Committees.
Their mandate spanned the gamut of governmental initiative, and had been the
result of great struggle in the effort to enlarge the democratic process in
The Opposition had long complained that they were locked out from the
day-to-day workings of governance, and were thus reduced to playing, at
best, an auditing role in the Public Accounts Committee, and at worst,
making noises in the National Assembly during debates that inevitably
amounted to naught, as the Government always had the numbers to carry the
argument and the day.
In the Sectoral Committees, while the Government still retained 5-4
majorities, the Chairs are rotated annually between the Government and the
Opposition. This was not an inconsiderable gain for the Opposition in
ensuring that matters of its concern were placed on the agenda - and also
The smaller number of members in the Committees also fostered a more
collegial atmosphere that eschewed the endemic compulsion for grandstanding
present in the Parliamentary debates.
With the authority to invite any member of the Government - and even state
institutions such as the police - to present testimony on issues before
them, combined with its power to hire experts to advise them, the Sectoral
Committees were indeed potentially powerful tools to deepen democracy and
accountability in our land.
So why have we not seen more results from this initiative? The Speaker
pointed to two constraints in his presentation: the need for "larger and
better trained staff" and "full-time Members of Parliament (MPs)". On the
latter, he was unequivocal that it "must be on the agenda, if Parliamentary
oversight, which is being increasingly seen as the key to the development of
accountability, is to be effective."
We agree. To continue with the present system is not only to ensure that its
encounters with civil organisations, such as the GMSA, are spasmodic and
inevitably desultory, and to deepen the prevalent sentiment in the wider
society that Parliament is just an empty "talk shop".
Most members of the public are unaware that the salaries of the MPs, who are
grandiosely trumpeted as representing their views in the "highest forum in
the land" and "the highest lawmaking body," are just a token stipend because
they are supposed to be just "part timers".
Maybe this might have been the case when all MPs had to do was show up at
the thirty or so annual sittings that had become the norm in the past. But
with the increased utilisation of the committee system - not just the four
sectoral ones, but the myriad standing committees such as Constitutional
Reform, and special committees to review contentious legislation etc., the
demands on part-timers are just too onerous: even with the nominal "top-up"
that committee members receive.
The Speaker recognised the funding constraints that bedevil this and any
administration, and suggested that we may begin by hiring full-time MPs for
the chairs and deputy chairs of the sectoral committees and possibly the
Public Accounts Committee.
We respectfully suggest that we should bite the bullet and make all MPs
full-timers. Because there are at present enough committees in Parliament to
occupy every MP, the gain to better governance will be immeasurable as we
develop experts in every field of national endeavour, as is evident, for
instance, in the US Congressional Committee system.
We take our hats off to the Speaker for raising this issue.