Local Authorities (Elections) (Amendment) Bill 2012 – Bill No. 2 of 20121755 15 Mar, 2012
Mr. Bulkan: Thank you Mr. Speaker. Colleagues and Hon. Members, I rise on behalf of the APNU in relation to the Bill. The Hon. Member, Mr. Ganga Persaud, the Minister of Local Government and Regional Development has indeed suggested that we on this side of the House will have no problem in supporting the motion which seeks the postponement, yet again, of Local Government Elections.
I note the Hon. Minister says that the Government remains aggressively committed to seeing that these elections are held as soon as possible, and as he says, under the new Local Government System. I note however, that the Hon. Minister speaks only of changes to the electoral system that seeks to introduce a mix of Proportion Representation (PR), but does not address the more fundamental reforms that have been identified as necessary. Yes, whilst it is true, as the Minister has identified, that all sides are committed to seeing that these long delayed elections are held as soon as possible, it needs to be established and made abundantly clear that fundamental reform of the system of Local Government is a priority and a prerequisite before these elections can be held. I note that the Minister also alluded to the situations that currently obtain with regards to the non-functioning of NDCs and the Municipalities.
I believe most Members of this House will be aware that this postponement that is being sought for the holding to the Local Government Elections is being done for the umpteenth time. Local Government Elections, as I believe is well known, were last held in 1994; that is some seventeen years ago. Previous Speakers in the previous Parliament and there have been many on this very issue have referred to this debate and on this topic as an annual pilgrimage. While tonight it seems that the baton, so to speak, has been passed to me, I hope it may be for the last time.
Whatever be the reason for the non-holding of these elections on both sides of this House, in fact all sides of this House, do have their own reasons and versions. The fact remains that as a result of this the system is not functioning as it should. It is totally unfair to expect persons who were elected seventeen years ago to have the same enthusiasm and drive. Many are not simply around for one reason or another. Finger pointing and blame casting will not do. It is time for the Government to step away from the obvious fear which they have of citizens electing their own leaders to manage community affairs in accordance with a principle that has already been identified, and arising from a bipartisan, thorough and extensive process. Subsequent to the last Local Government Elections in 1994, the consensus emerging out of debates in this Assembly was that there was need for Local Government reform and for the system to be overhauled and for new life to be injected.
Following Constitutional Amendments, a taskforce was agreed and established by the then President, His Excellency Bharrat Jagdeo and the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Desmond Hoyte. The mandate of this taskforce was to recommend legislation to give substance to those Constitutional Amendments. It is therefore important for us and the Guyanese people to understand that reform of the system is a Constitutional requirement, it is not a favour that we are begging of the Government; the Constitution dictates this. The objective is to work towards the creation of a system that offers an efficient way to deliver common services to citizens, among these being, drainage, maintenance and enhancement to public spaces and playgrounds, garbage disposal, enforcement of building codes and standards et cetera. It is recognised that a proper and well functioning system of Local Government, and we are speaking here of levels below the RDCs, where officials are elected to performs tasks and functions identified by residents, a periodic and democratic election is the best way to go about delivering such services. This is not the role of the Central Government.
The reforms proposed are not some concoction of the Opposition to prise power out of the hands of Central Government. What is being proposed is not a system that will be unique to Guyana, but on the contrary, one that is designed to bring our country in line with what obtains in successful societies or international best practices.
I will be very brief in touching on some key examples of international best practices. In this regard, I know that Hon. Member, Minister Clement Rohee, had suggested earlier that we cast our eyes beyond the shores of Guyana. Many if not most Members of this House will be familiar with what obtains in the United States of America (USA), where they have a Federal Government, that whilst responsible for national security, foreign relations, for overseeing and coordinating national policies such as managing the economy et cetera, that there is a system, an extensive system in fact for State and Municipal Government- one that is extensive and elaborate where considerable power is devolved and the authority of lower tiers of Government- as I said such as State’s regional and local county et cetera is not only considerable, but fully independent. This authority extends to areas such as taxation, law enforcement including judicial matters, education, public works et cetera.
Each State in the USA has its own Courts, Judges, Police, Public officials et cetera. I imagine what I said there would not be news to any Member of this House as indeed the majority of Guyanese have ties and links to the USA and hence are aware that when you purchase anything in America a sales tax is added, which is used as one of the means of garnering revue to fund the State Government. Most of us here would know that in the USA, each State issues their own driver’s license and as alluded, operates their own Police services, Courts et cetera. There are as well lower tiers of authority extending to towns, cities, counties and such like.
In Canada it is not much different and where considerable, devolution of power exists. Some may wish to say that America and Canada are large countries and therefore we cannot use them as an appropriate model. To any such suggestion my response will be that while indeed they are both large, they are developed and successful societies and indeed there are many large societies that are not similarly so developed or advanced; the point being is that their model or formula that is responsible for their success.
I will take a country that has more or less the similar land mass as ours. I refer to the United Kingdom (UK) which has an area of 94,000 square miles, plus or minus a few which makes it roughly about ten percent larger than Guyana. The UK comprises of four countries, England, Northern Island, Scotland and Wales. Within the UK, there are three devolved national administrations with capitals and their own Parliaments in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh. It is no secret that the UK is a member of the G7 and is also member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council and possesses nuclear weapons. There were the world’s first industrialised country and at the height of their power in 1922 the British Empire encompassed almost a quarter of the world’s entire land surface. The point that I am making is that autonomy and effective local Government is not something new that is being sought to be introduced here in Guyana, it is practised in successful societies internationally.
The Joint Task Force to which I have already referred began its work in May/June of 2001. The task force was made up of four members appointed by the Government, three from the Opposition and supported by other resource personnel. It held thirty one consultations in all of the geographic and Administrative Regions of our country. This task force focused on five main areas; firstly “What is a pertinent system”, “The Autonomy of Local Government bodies”, thirdly “The operation of Local Government bodies”, “Local Government electoral systems” and finally, “General Reform of the system. The report was submitted some eighteen months later, in December 2003. It tells us therefore that the work of the taskforce was extensive.
It is apposite to note that the general terms of reference of that task force was the implementing of provisions of Local Government legislation and for it to be within twelve months and that Local Government Elections should be held as speedily as possible thereafter, and in particular to monitor and guide the drafting, passing and implementation of elections to go give, and I emphasise, greater autonomy to local government bodies, including the establishment of the Local Government Commission and also, the formulation and implementation of objective criteria for the purpose of allocation of resources to and the garnering of resources by local democratic organs.
The task force used as their guide, the Articles of the Constitution relating to local democracy and local democratic organs, these being Article 71 to Article 78. For Article 71 through 74, there are either no proposals or minor ones, as they were explicit and comprehensive enough. Article 75 which demands that local democratic organs be autonomous, the proposals are as follows, that such autonomy be looked at vis-à-vis the functions of the proposed Local Government Commission and that the role of Central Government should be restricted to one policy formulation. Secondly, the establishment of standard for the delivery of services, the undertaking of infrastructural works that the revenue base of the various authorities should be expanded and that NDCs and municipalities should retain their waiting authority. They, i.e. the local authority, should be allowed to expend within their budgetary provisions without having to refer to or to defer to other levels of Government. The task force proposed that the proposed Local Government Commission would exercise an oversight and supervisory role. It said that the legislation to provide for consultation with lower authority to ensure such authority be able to influence matters pertaining to programmes and projects within the local areas.
With regard to expansion of the revenue base, specific suggestions were proposed for consideration. We can see that the intent was clear, it is about autonomy and devolution, moving away from centralisation. For Article 77 which has to do with the allocation of resources to and the garnering of resources by local democratic organs, the proposals are as follows, on “Allocation of Resources” agreement is principle and was reached in regard to the formula and a working group was appointed to formulate objective criteria. The criteria for fiscal transfers were based on a basic premise, this being the functions identified to be performed by the various local democratic organs. Once the above was established, the taskforce proposed that Central Government would be in a position to determine how much resources are committed to each tier. The allocated funds would have to be subdivided taking into account specific considerations, for example, population size, infrastructure to be maintained, services to be rendered, revenue based institution capacity, special circumstances such as levels of poverty, history of capacity realisation et cetera. On the garnering of resources, it said that Local Government bodies should be empowered to imposes rates and taxes on property, i.e. on the NDCs and once collected by the NDCs to be shared with the lower tiers, for example village councils, community councils et cetera, and that village and community councils should be empowered to approach donor agencies to seek resources required for the development or enhancement of their respective localities such as waste disposal, economic projects et cetera.
The objective speaks clearly to autonomy and devolution. For the Minister to interfere and manipulate in a partisan manner in the functioning of lower tiers of Local Government as is currently happening.
Article 78 of the Constitution deals with the need for a body independent of Central Government, it says:
“Parliament shall establish a Local Government Commission having wide ranging authority which it outlines.”
The proposals regarding the Local Government Commission were that its powers would be substantial and nationwide in scope. It would be empowered to monitor the activities of local government organs and these encompass the gamut. What it envisaged and proposed, it says, is system that leads to and allows for, I quote:
“Greater autonomy and devolution of power”
It proposes that such appointments which are currently scrutinised by the RDC and which are subject to ministerial or RDC approval will no longer be so scrutinised or subjected. It also allows for a Local Government Organ to be empowered to dismiss any staff member after due process has been observed. In other words, no micro management, each tier of the system must be allowed to function without undue interference from above. I believe that the late Dr. Jagan would have been proud to usher into being a system such as the one proposed by the taskforce, as he was a true democrat.
The particular composition of the commission was identified as were the skills that are to be resident in it and on the all important question of its funding, it says:
“The commission will prepare its own annual budget and for that to be funded by the consolidated fund”
Article 78 (b) deals with the electoral system in respect of local democratic organs below the RDC and states that such electoral system,
“Shall provide for the involvement and representation of such individuals and voluntary groups in addition to political parties and accountability to the electors”
The proposal from the task force is for the geographical and population size to determine the quantity of councilors but that no counsel must have less than six councilors. In keeping with the democratic council, it says that councilors must be elected on the basis of one man/one vote and nominees/candidates must be resident in the constituency.
On that vital leave for accountability it states that it will be mandatory for the proper recording of decisions to enable the constituency or the community to be comprehensively informed on the performance of any councillor, this will inform and facilitate whatever action is necessary including the recall of councillors.
In conclusion, the report acknowledges that the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development presented a number of proposed changes to the Local Government Act. The members of the task force expressed the hope that their efforts not to go to waste and that its proposal will see the light of day in the form of speedy implementation. That report, as I said, was submitted in December 2003, which means that more than eight years have gone by and the objective remain unrealised.
It is legitimate therefore to ask the question, why this is so? I have already alluded to this, but will go further to state that recrimination will get us no where other than a dead end. Courage has to be summoned to achieve the consensus that is needed to advance national, not partisan interest. I repeat, consensus has to be found. We would do well, both sides of this August Assembly, to recognise that while we are talking, let us not forget that more than one decade has gone by since the joint task force was established, the people are looking and paying keen attention and are asking themselves this very question, which is, why cannot their national leaders put aside their partisan positions and act in the national interest. They are paying rap attention because it is they who have to live with steadily deteriorating conditions arising from the inability to elect councillors to manage and administer community affairs and interest.
There is a saying in Detroit, Detroit being the headquarters of the American automobile industry, that says, “You lead, follow, or get out of the way”. Perhaps this is exactly what our citizens are thinking and moreover asking, why is it they are the ones who have to suffer as a result of the failure of leaders to act responsibly? Why must they be the ones to have to live with the neglect, decay, etc, that is systematic of this broken system? The clogged drains, the flooding, which many speakers have alluded to, parapets not maintained, overgrown playgrounds, no place for children to play and it goes on.
We on this side of the House say that the posturing has to stop and consensus has to be reached because the elections of 28th November 2011 imposes such an obligation on this Assembly. The people have spoken and their message is that they want a different formula. They have said that the winner must not take all; they want to see a system where there are checks and balances. Yes, they have chosen a Government, but they have also determined that such a Government will not have unlimited powers as has obtained for far too long, hence, the minority status of the current Government in this legislature.
The people have said to the AFC and to us, APNU, please be our watch dogs and protect our interest. We therefore have a duty and we intend to discharge that duty faithfully and may I add relentlessly.
Just recently, when the people in Mahaicony and environs were flooded out, yet again, one farmer was reported in the Stabroek News and in lamenting their plight exclaimed, “We only hope now is Parliament.” That quote was in Stabroek News of February 5th of this year and the name of the farmer was identified as Mr. Deolall. I say this to make the point that the citizens of this country are attuned and they want to seek consensus, they would like to see this broken system repaired.
The answer to what the Minister’s predecessor, the Hon. Kellewan Lall, former Minister of Local Government and Regional Development, describe as a system, “Under severe pressure and in crisis.” It is not the installation of IMCs as the Government is want to do and has done on occasions, that is the undemocratic way, nor is it or can be intervention and interference on the part of the Ministry in the affairs of the NDCs and preventing their functioning as is happening now with the transfers of overseers in Region 4, in a unilateral, arbitrary and highhanded manner. That is also undemocratic. No, the answer however is not just the holding of elections, first the reforms which I have said have been mandated by constitutional amendments and which have been agreed to by all partners and all parties, have to come into force.
Previous speakers from the Government side have committed themselves to ensuring that Local Government Reform becomes a reality. I would like to quote once more the Hon. Kellewan Lall, in the 2009 debate he ended his presentation by saying, “I want to conclude by saying that we are firmly committed to having Local Government elections under a reformed system. We made that commitment with Mr. Hoyte and we are going to stick with it.”
The transcripts on this issue are voluminous and I believe I have said enough, but in closing, I would like to recall a few words of previous speakers from our side. In the 2008 presentation to this House, on December 29th, 2008, the then Opposition Leader, the Hon. Robert Corbin, had this to say, “It is the resistance to the Constitutional Reforms, which have been mandated that is the root cause of the prolonged delay...
Mr. Speaker, the then Opposition Leader ended his presentation with some words of caution and this is what he said, “I want to advise the Government to forget the idea of avoiding Local Government Reform, it cannot happen in this country”. Secondly, my colleague here in the front bench, Hon. Member, Mr. Basil Williams, whom in the last of his many contributions on this issue, on 2nd December, 2010, said, “We are here again on this annual pilgrimage for the postponing of Local Government elections. We are constrained to support the proposed amendment. We will have to accede to the postponement.” While both the above positions are still valid, and I am restating them as part of my presentation, I will add that in the case of the latter, my hope is that it will be for the last time.
I beg of Hon. Members on the opposite side, please stop the posturing, the people are watching us as I have said and they expect and deserve better. Thank you. [Applause]
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