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Speaker to rule on budget cuts admissibility

parlbldgSpeaker of the National Assembly Raphael Trotman is to rule on Tuesday whether some GUY$35.5B in budget cuts proposed by the Alliance For Change (AFC) could be entertained in the House.

A motion in the name of AFC’s Khemraj Ramjattan is before the House proposing an amendment to the government’s GUY$208.8B budget estimates.

Consideration of the estimates was set to begin on Monday but Trotman said he believed it was critical to deal frontally with the issue of the cuts since it impacted on the entire process. He invited Ramjattan to present arguments on the motion in light of the government signalling that it would challenge it.

Ramjattan in his submission stated that the parliament in any Westminster democracy such as Guyana’s had an inherent right to propose and give effect to amendments.

“To degut the National Assembly of that right is literally to take away the heart if you were to compare the National Assembly to a human being. It is what gives the National Assembly that power of scrutiny, of supervision, of the public monies,” he stated.

He urged the Speaker to rule that they could cut despite the provisional ruling of Chief Justice Ian Chang following the challenge of last year’s budget cuts. The judge had ruled that the opposition could only approve or disapprove the budget in its entirety and not amend it.

“It is strange that we in the National Assembly, it is being argued by the Honourable Attorney General, can disapprove all $208B of expenditure, we can approve all but we can’t reduce even by $1. That has to be a most notorious interpretation of our constitution,” the AFC MP said.

Ramjattan said the Constitution and the Parliamentary Standing Orders both gave them the right to cut the budget. He also quoted the parliamentary record from the 2012 budget consideration highlighting where Finance Minister Dr. Ashni Singh had recognised and promised to defend the opposition’s right to amend the budget.

Speaking after him Dr. Singh said he was not “infallible” and sought to provide a context for his 2012 position by citing the unprecedented nature of those budget cuts.

“Whatever words I may have uttered at the end of budget 2012 would have been words uttered without the benefit of our collective experience confronting, challenging and putting to the test including the ultimate test, scrutiny by the court of law. This should not in any way be construed as a shifting of government’s position,” the finance minister said.

He added that the court has now pronounced definitively on the issue and the government would be guided by the decisions of the court of the law, laws of the land and the constitution.

APNU attorney Deborah Backer in her submission said the two sides had a responsibility to the people to hammer out a budget that would “make space for everyone” and close the gap between the rich and the poor.

“If the government was serious we may not have been here even debating this because we would have come to compromise and while neither side would have gotten everything they wanted we would have been able to say to the majority of people that we represent, look, we couldn’t get everything for you but we’ve gotten A,B and C … and we would have all left here as winners,” Backer stated.

She concurred with Ramjattan’s position that they could amend the budget saying that there were attempts in other CARICOM states to amend the estimates but they were always defeated because the opposition parties did not have the majority.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Anil Nandlall in an hour and a half contribution highlighted precedents from around the globe to make the point that the constitution was the supreme law of the land to which the legislature must subject itself with the court as the final authority on constitutional interpretation.

“There’s no other authority, sir, that has the power under our system that can second guess the rulings of that court when it comes to the constitution and that puts your honour in a very precarious position.

And I say with the greatest of respect sir, your honour suffers from being in the invidious position of being asked now to essentially review the ruling from a tribunal that the constitution has appointed as the sole arbiter of whether it is breached or not,” Nandlall stated.

The AG also rejected the oppositions’ position that the judge’s decision could not be challenged because it was a preliminary one stating that the Full Court of the High Court could rule on an appeal of a preliminary ruling.

According to Nandlall, the opposition’s position was “frivolous, vexatious and puerile.” He added that the opposition was bound by the Chief Justice’s ruling and they could ignore it at their own peril. The government also submitted that the Speaker had no power to depart from the judge’s ruling.

In his submission the APNU’s Basil Williams quoted from the CJ’s ruling where the judge stated that “since it is not the function of the court to intervene in or interfere with the Assembly in the conduct of its affairs of business the court has no jurisdiction to issue coercive orders to this Assembly …”

Williams added that the court could not enforce laws against the National Assembly in keeping with the doctrine of the separation of powers. He added that the court could only rule on a decision of the National Assembly after it would have run its course through the parliament.

“It is only after a bill has been passed by the Assembly and assented to by the president that it would be open to the court to declare that the Act to be void for unconstitutionality,” he quoted from the ruling.

“But once we are passing it through this House, nobody move, nobody get hurt,” Williams declared.

According to him, the government had two options when the opposition cut the budget; it could approve the subsequent appropriations bill and accept the amendments or refuse to bring the bill. He added that there was a “real possibility” that the bill would not pass if the government did not amend it.                                                        

After almost five hours of submissions from members on both sides of the House Trotman complimented them on the quality of the arguments and stated that he would need time to consider the arguments.