The President’s Speech
I am confident that the existing parliamentary mechanisms that allow for the finding of common ground and the meeting of minds will, where necessary, be fully utilized. I implore both sides of the National Assembly to work together in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. This is my charge to you.
If there was ever a most relevant and astute approbation to be given to a new parliamentary construct it would be the words above delivered in 2006 by President Jagdeo on the occasion of the ceremonial opening of the 9th Parliament.
Today, the three arms of the State viz. the Executive, the Legislature and specially invited members of the Judiciary will converge in one meeting place - the hallowed and venerable parliamentary chamber of Guyana to eagerly listen to a new President address a new legislature.
I look forward to this distinguished event of State that happens once every five years. The disciplined forces will be out in their resplendent and stiffly starched attire to preside over the pomp and fanfare with characteristic aplomb. The regalia will be missing a marching Commissioner who is marching instead in the opposite direction towards the Judiciary for redress for perceived violations of his rights.
Article 67(1) of the Constitution provides that “the President may at any time attend and address the National Assembly.”
President Ramotar according to a brief biography on the website of the Office of the President has served as a Parliamentarian since the PPP returned to power in 1992. He is familiar with the trappings of the Chamber, the parliamentary hustings and the experience of intelligent though sometimes less than civil debates. Over the past 19 years he would have also enjoyed the untrammeled experience of being part of a parliamentary majority. He ought to be relieved to be out of Parliament in its current construct.
I expect that today will be a dignified State event as it ought to be. It is an historic occasion in many ways. We have a newly elected President returning to his old and familiar territory in an executive capacity to address his erstwhile colleagues in a new parliamentary construct. The President will be addressing the nation’s first hung parliament and by extension will also be addressing the people. That it is an historic occasion is even reflected in the new website of the Office of the President being changed from www.op.gov.gy to www.opnew.op.gov.gy which could be loosely translated to “office of the president new, office of the president, government of Guyana which I quite like.
The Parliament is described in the Constitution as being one of the three supreme organs of democratic power in Guyana, the other two being the President and the Cabinet. The Constitution also provides that Parliament consists of the President and the National Assembly. It further provides that the President may send messages to the National Assembly to be read from time to time.
The dignified event of State of a new President addressing the legislature and the people immediately draws the parallel in my mind of the powerful US State of the Union address which is watched by millions around the world.
I look forward to the State of the Union’s address as I look forward to His Excellency’s address today. I am anxiously looking forward because I want to hear the President’s vision for Guyana and his five year plan. I want to hear indicators of our collective future. The President’s address is expected to set the tone for the government’s policy over the next five years and outline his national and legislative agenda. But the President’s address should also address the hopes, dreams, fears and aspirations of the Guyanese people. On the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Prime Minister Tony Blair said “now is not the time for sound-bites. I can feel the hand of history on my shoulder.”
Today is the perfect opportunity for His Excellency to take political stock of where we are as a post independent nation and tell us what his plans for our destiny are. Young people like me want to hear fresh ideas and new thinking. We want to be inspired and excited about our future.
A few of the primary issues that I am looking forward to hearing about include: plans for security and public safety; reform of the police force starting with the identification of a new Police Commissioner; implementation of the recommendations of the Disciplined Forces Commission Report done almost a decade ago on which I had served as Secretary; introduction of DNA testing by the new police forensic laboratory and the appropriate laws to complement this. Two days ago the Trinidad parliament passed their DNA Bill after a marathon session in parliament from 11:00am to 1:00am. One only needs to be reminded of the forensic bungling with the highly improper preservation of evidence in the Sheema Mangar tragedy and the Lindo Creek Massacre to justify a call for the speedy implementation of these modern tools to solve crimes.
I am interested in hearing about the development Bank the President spoke about on the campaign trail; a review of the rate of VAT, income tax and corporate tax. Is the government really going to reduce the onerous VAT rate of 16%? I was heartened that on the campaign trail the President had spoken about doing a review of the tax system which I believe is quite onerous. A tripartite panel excluding representatives of the parliamentary opposition has been appointed to conduct a review. Have they been working? How are they working? What is their methodology? Have their terms of reference been published, are they inviting submissions from the general public, do they have a staff and a budget to do their work, do they have researchers, how often have they met since they were appointed, are they being paid? These are just a few questions that spring to mind.
I am also looking out to hear what will be the tangible efforts to reduce poverty; rebuild the manufacturing sector; improve the state of the education system and propelling the University of Guyana, my alma mater, to take a quantum leap into the future. Appointing a successful Minister like Priya Manickchand to the Education Ministry is a forward step. What are the government’s plans to help and increase the ever diminishing middle class? All Guyanese want a fair and a just society. All my clients who are businessmen continue to cry out for a level playing field. Citizens expect their constitutional rights of equality and protection of the law to be realized. I am particularly interested in the development of social justice and human rights. I am also interested in hearing the plans to deal with social issues such as the increase of domestic violence, suicide and child abuse. This week the Child Care and Protection Agency reported a staggering number of 3000 reported cases of child abuse of which a significant number were sexual abuse cases.
I am not interested in hearing elegant political rhetoric of the kind that adorns the preamble of the constitution such as “proud heirs of the indomitable will of our forebears, in a spirit of reconciliation and cooperation” etc etc etc. These are vague and unenforceable. We want to hear concrete plans focusing on deliverables and tangible results. Too often we confuse political activity with accomplishments. I am tired of hives of activity with very little results.
We are all witnessing history in the making with the recent election results and we are all uncertain about what really this means for the people. How is this opposition parliamentary majority really going to play out? Will there be a tangible benefit that will trickle down to the people? The PPP has not been in the minority in parliament since they were in opposition when “fairy tale elections” gave the PNC all kinds of fictive parliamentary majorities such as the massively rigged 1985 elections which saw the PNC gaining 42 seats with 77.6% of the total votes cast while the PPP supposedly won 8 seats with 15.6% of the votes cast. Quite hilarious if it wasn’t such serious electoral fraud.
I am sure President Ramotar in preparing his address would have reviewed various addresses of his predecessors. I reviewed President Jagdeo’s address to Parliament in 2006 which was given to me at that time by Khurshid Sattaur when I was his Senior Legal Adviser and Prosecutor. It was a good speech and might be useful for political analysts to examine how much of what was promised was actually delivered. Certainly the following commitment sprang to my attention:
Over the next five years, my Government will spend in excess of $1.5 billion to train 25,000 young persons in various skills as part of our plan to rebuild the entrepreneurial class in Guyana.
I would like to know if this was achieved.
In 2006 President Jagdeo also told Parliament that his government is
“committed to entrenching the integrity of our public institutions. This will involve continuing the relentless fight against corruption and an unequivocal subscription to transparency and accountability in the affairs of government.
I look forward to His Excellency reiterating and delivering that commitment.
By Gino Peter Persaud LL.M