Opposition Questions Need Commission to Act as Governing Body
GUYANA (STABROEK NEWS) — The ground-breaking Whistleblower Protection Bill was passed in the National Assembly last evening without amendment, although there was opposition to the formulation of a commission to act as the governing body.
After eight presentations and a rebuttal from the Minister of Legal Affairs, Basil Williams SC, the Bill was passed by acclamation, although opposition members had argued strongly for the document to go to a select committee to be revised.
Formally the “Protected Disclosures Bill”, the document, in Clause 4, makes provisions for the establishment of a Protected Disclosures Commission, which would be tasked with receiving, investigating and dealing with disclosures of “improper conduct”.
PPP/C Member of Parliament Adrian Anamayah was the first to question the need for such a commission, which he called an “undue burden to the treasury”. He noted that although the bill was in draft, no provisions were made in the budget for such a body, and further queried whether another agency could not handle the task.
Anamayah joked that “on the face of it” the formulation of the body appears to be just “another job for the boys”.
His colleague, Joseph Hamilton, directing his question to the Minister of Finance, asked whether there was “fiscal space” for the commission, and opined that the government was “putting the cart before the horse”.
In addition, questions were raised about the appointment of persons to serve on the commission.
Williams, who piloted the bill, had related that the commission would consist of a Chairman and four commissioners. While the Chairman would be chosen by the Minister, and satisfy a number of criteria such as having held the office as a Judge of the Court of Appeal or qualified for such; or held the office as a Judge of the High Court, or qualifies for same, the other four members would be voted for by the National Assembly, after choosing from seven organisations.
“It says the four other members of the commission should be appointed by Minister after being elected by the National Assembly from a nominee of the integrity commission. We start out with 4 persons but we end up with 7 persons…this is unusual…” Hamilton stated.
“What’s wrong with it is that we have 7 representatives coming to us, important organizations in their own right representing constituents in their own right and I’m saying that there’s no legislation I remember where we’re establishing any commission where you’re asking the parliament…to elect four persons from seven different organisations submitting names. It is always you ask for a name from an organization because that organiastion will have representation on the commission,” Hamilton said.
The organisations are the Integrity Commission, Private Sector Commis-sion, Bar Association, Institute of Chartered Accountants of Guyana, Guyana Human Rights Association, Guyana Trades Union Congress and Guyana Police Association.
PPP/C MP Gillian Burton-Persaud raised question as to how, out of the seven organisations, they had decided that the Guyana Trades Union Congress, of all the established trade unions, would be one of the representative organisations.
She also noted that the document made no mention of rotations of the committee members.
PPP/C MP and Chief Whip Gail Teixeira pointed out that conflicts of interest may exist as a representative on the commission may very well be a part of the organization against which a complaint is being issued.
Teixeira questioned whether the bill was up to the international standards the government was attempting to emulate, namely the frameworks of the United Nations and the Organisation of American States, as she noted that several terms utilized in the document were not clearly defined.
She called the bill “deficient”, declaring that it “needs serious work”, also noting that it makes no provisions for the protection of whistleblowers once matters reach to the level of the court.
“You have made this in a way that it is cumbersome, expensive and unnecessary. It’s unnecessary,” Teixeira stated. “In addition to that, you’re telling us the minister gives general directions, but then just before that it says this commission must be controlled by who? It’s not under the control of any other authority,” she said.
Part II, Clause 4, subsection 5 of the bill states that “The Minister may give to the Commission directions of a general character as appear to him to be expedient in relation to the exercise of its functions.”
PPP MP Harry Gill called for this section to be deleted from the bill in a bid to make the legislation free of political interference which he stated can impact the outcome of an investigation.
“We need to strengthen this Bill to preserve the independence and integrity of the Protected Disclosures Commission and allow this Body to function without giving the Minister the power to give “directions” which can easily be abused to protect a Party comrade or a Minister of Government,” Gill presented.
He concluded that “judging from the required qualifications of those appointment to this commission, I would argue that the composition of this body when constituted, will be competent enough to make fair and impartial decisions on its own without Ministerial interference.”
Gill had spent an extensive part of his presentation recalling events of last year in which a nurse was transferred from her post after making a report of substance abuse and resource exploitation by a government employee.
“Mr Speaker, the very government who now wants this Bill pass, has caused tremendous hardship to one of their own supporters and her family for doing what she thought was right. This is not only duplicitous, it is downright hypocritical and dishonest for some who would vote in the affirmative to pass this Bill today…Time and time again, this government has demonstrated its unwillingness to discipline one of its own for violating the very laws it requires others to be governed by,” Gill asserted.
Meanwhile, Public Security Khemraj Ramjattan called for the bill to be accepted by members as is without amendment, adding that if the need arises, amendments can take place in future.
He dismissed criticisms of the cost to operate such a commission, stating that it would cost the state much more if no action were taken.
“…it will cost monies but we must appreciate when compared to the cost of not having it—the institution—what is that cost? It would be far more…we realise that it is an international obligation under the Convention Against Corruption, we realize that it is a social value to have people an citizens speaking out and if it’s going to cost money, well too bad, we have to pay. Democracy, as you would appreciate, makes a lot of sense but it costs a lot of dollars.”
“And so it is important then that we put aside these arguments as to the operationalization costs and come to the realization that it is better to have these institutions of government, institutions of governance, that is going to play a major role in creating that good life and better society in future.”