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Combined opposition to cut budget despite High Court ruling

Parliament Building where the National Assembly sits

The opposition political parties on Wednesday vowed to cut the 2014 National Budget, despite a High Court ruling earlier in the day that the National Assembly does not have the power to do so.

Although Chief Justice Ian Chang said in his 21-page decision that the House could only disapprove of all or a section of the Budget, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance For Change (AFC) and the Alliance For Change (AFC) both said they would go ahead and slash the budget as they see fit.

The two parties that together enjoy a one-seat majority in the 65-seat House maintained that Parliament is independent of the Executive and is governed by its own rules.

While the High Court case was about government’s challenge of the opposition’s cut in the 2012 National Budget, the court’s declaration is not confined to that year. “The court sees it fit to declare that the National Assembly through the Committee of Supply has acted unlawfully and unconstitutionally in purporting to reduce or cut the Estimates of Expenditure of the Minister of Finance for the financial year 2012.

“The court sees it fit to further declare that the power of the National Assembly is limited to giving or withholding its approval for the Minister’s Estimates when those estimates are laid before the National Assembly for its approval under Article 218 of the Constitution,” states the decision.

AFC Leader Khemraj Ramjattan said that although he would be appealing the decision, his party’s seven parliamentarians would still reduce proposed expenditures as they see fit. “We will say that the Law of Parliament and our Standing Orders are what we are governed by and we will proceed to reduce in the 2014 budget,” he told Demerara Waves Online News (www.demwaves.com). The High Court said the Standing Orders are not law but the Assembly’s internal rules of procedure.

APNU’s Shadow Minister of Legal Affairs Basil Williams said his opposition coalition that holds 26 seats in the House would do the same. Unless the CCJ makes a decision, “APNU position is that we could cut the budget,” he said.

Williams shrugged off suggestions that APNU would be disregarding the High Court ruling. “We can’t violate any ruling of the court when we are saying that we are maintaining our independence,” he said, adding that his coalition could not violate a ruling when the High Court has not heard lawyers for Opposition Leader David Granger.

Asked if the Attorney General moved to obtain a High Court order should the opposition go ahead with cutting the expenditure, Williams reiterated that “the Court hasn’t heard us and therefore they would have to accept whatever course obtains in the Parliament.”

The Chief Justice, in his decision, acknowledges the general independence of the National Assembly but said the court could not stand idly by if the House engaged in unlawful or unconstitutional conduct. “It is trite law that the Court does have a supervisory jurisdiction over the Assembly. It is in the exercise of its supervisory jurisdiction over Parliament itself that the court strikes down legislation on the ground of unconstitutionality,” said Chang.

Chang had previously ruled that the Finance Minister, Dr. Ashni Singh and Granger could not be parties to the case because they enjoyed immunity. That ruling was taken to the Full Court which said it had no jurisdiction to hear the matter.

Maintaining that the Opposition Leader has a right to be heard because it is the opposition that had cut the National Budget, Williams then moved to the Court of Appeal for a stay of the substantive Budget cut case in the Chief Justice’s court.

However, Chang handed down in his ruling before the appeal could have been heard; a move that Williams said bolstered his confidence that he would be victorious. “We have arguments that are substantive arguments and we are even more confident now that this ruling has been made before the Appellate Court rules on our matter because it’s clear that we have a good case,” said Chang.

Williams insisted that the Opposition Leader was the winner of the issue in Parliament was shut out in the courts before he was even given an opportunity to be heard. Instead, he said, the loser-the government—was afforded a hearing.

The Chief Justice based his decision on Guyana’s constitution rather than practices in foreign jurisdictions without helpful reference to parallel or similar constitutional or legislative provisions in those jurisdictions. He said the Assembly may approve or not approve the Finance Minister’s estimates of expenditure, it has no power to amend those estimates by way of reduction or of increase. “It is the executive Minister’s estimates and it is he who must amend them to obtain the Assembly’s approval so that the Cabinet may recommend or consent to the presentation of an Appropriation Bill to the Assembly for passing for the purpose of charging those estimates to the Consolidated Fund,” he said.

Chang explained that the Constitution has provided for the approval and non-approval of the Minister’s estimates of expenditure by the Assembly in Article 218 means that approval cannot be interpreted to mean “amend” because it would be nonsensical for the Constitution to require the Assembly to approve that which itself has amended. “The power to amend may involve the power to approve. But a power to approve does not imply a power to amend,” he said.

Allocations for the National Communications Network, Government Information Agency (GINA), the Specialty Hospital, the road leading to the proposed site of the Amaila Falls Hydropower plant and the Cheddi Jagan International Airport expansion project in the 2012 and 2013 National Budgets.