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President, civil society in tussle over new Natural Resource Fund legislation

Last Updated on Tuesday, 28 December 2021, 15:32 by Denis Chabrol

President Irfaan Ali and at least three civil society organisations are at odds over provisions of the new Natural Resources Fund legislation ahead of its parliamentary debate on Thursday.

The Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC), Transparency Institute of Guyana Inc. (TIGI) and Article 13,the Civil Society Group formed to promote inclusionary and participatory governance, said that there is insufficient time between the publication of the Bill in the Official Gazette on December 15, its tabling in the National Assembly on December 16 and debate scheduled for December 28.

“We consider it entirely unreasonable, even in the best of circumstances, for the people of Guyana and their parliamentary representatives to have just eight working days to consider the text and implications of undoubtedly the most significant piece of legislation of the PPP/C Administration,”  the organisations said.

The civil society stakeholders said that the oversight mechanisms contained in the Act of the same name passed by the APNU+AFC Government have been dismantled and the Bill places the moneys in the Fund in the hands of a Board of Directors appointed by the President and that the Board reports to the Minister of Finance.  The GTUC, TIGI and Article 13 say that the Public Accountability and Oversight Committee comprising of nine persons provides vaguely for “non-governmental oversight of the Fund” that will be responsible for reporting to the National Assembly and that the Fund will be operationally managed by the Bank of Guyana, whose Governor is also appointed by the President.

While GTUC, TIGI and Article 13 want the Bill to be sent to a bipartisan parliamentary select committee to allow for Guyanese to propose changes, the President gave no commitment on that but instead said the draft legislation would be debated.

“We therefore call upon the President, in accordance with the requirement of the Constitution, and especially in the light of the recent ruling of the CCJ (Caribbean Court of Justice) with regard to what is effective consultation, and further, to enable his Government to receive the advice and recommendations of a wide cross-section of the citizenry, to have the Bill referred to a Select Committee of the National Assembly to which members of the public are permitted to make recommendations,” the organisations said.

“As the Bill makes its way through the debates, there again, we are not an unconstitutional government that is rushing the Bill through. The Bill is in Parliament for a full debate,” he said.

He stayed clear of criticisms by the opposition People’s National Congress Reform (PNCR) and the three civil society organisations about the reduction in the Public Accountability and Oversight Committee from 22 members to nine.

Instead, he spent some time on government’s decision to make provision in the new law for a Board of Directors, which would be appointed by him, instead of the Minister of Finance having almost exclusive control.  The Investment Committee, which would include a nominee by the Leader of the Opposition, would be tasked with advising the Board about its investment mandate.

The President in Tuesday defended the decision to legally empower him to name the Board of Directors and appoint the Chairman. The law envisages that the Directors will have  wide experience and ability in legal, financial, business, or administrative matters, one of whom shall be nominated by the National Assembly and one of whom shall be a representative of the private sector. “The President would not just wake up and collect a few men and women and put them on a board and say this is the Board of Directors. The Bill makes it very clear the minimum qualifications of board members,” he said.  He sought to convince the Nation that they  “will be proud of the Board”, even as he questioned who should appoint that body.

Dr. Ali said the “entire opposition” would be able to scrutinise the expenditure in the National Assembly and monies spent would be audited by the Auditor General and further examined by the bipartisan Public Accounts Committee. “As we move forward, I want to assure you that the Natural Resource Fund will be managed in the interest of every Guyanese, in the interest of all of Guyana,” he said.