By J. K. Roberts
Legal Affairs Minister Honourable Elvin Nimrod pronounced in the House of Representatives of Grenada on Thursday 14th August 2014 that the date for the national referendum on constitutional reform would be sometime in March 2015. This is a change to the previous date, which was set for 10th February 2015 and announced at a post Cabinet press meeting on 15th July 2014. No reason was given for the change and it is also mystifying as to the reason the new date was not more specified.
J. K. Roberts is not an expert on the professional disciplines highlighted in his writings, but sees himself as having keen and passionate interest in public policies’ advocacy and analysis. He is a ‘premature retiree’ of the public service of Grenada, the author of two books (“Into The 21st Century”, 1995, and “Management Practices in The Public Service of Grenada”, 2011) and the founder of a civil society organisation called National Initiative for Prolific Policies (NIPP Grenada Inc.) for well over a decade and a half.
The manner by which the first date was announced and the issues surfaced for the referendum do not convey any positive impression of certainty and seriousness about the reform project, which has been placed for finalization under the direction of a Constitution Reform Advisory Committee established in January 2014. In fact, it highlights the despicable attitude and approach by which the project is being executed.
The occasion for the announcement should have been marked by a formal presentation of the report on the public consultations held by the advisory committee and an open opportunity for the committee to explain the operations and challenges of its work and to address the concerns and complaints leveled at the project. The public would have also been informed of all the areas and activities leading to the referendum, as well as received a breakdown of the relevant times and costs.
A fundamental function of the advisory committee is to ensure that the reform project is “transparent and credible, creating the atmosphere of consensus”. It is taken that this function covers four main aspects of the project; consultations with the public, recommendations to the government, drafting of the amendment bills and campaigning for the referendum.
From all angles, however, the committee has thus far greatly failed and it would be woeful for the committee to continue in this vein leading to the referendum. Typically, the mechanism and criteria used in arriving at which recommendations are submitted for the reform have not been detailed for satisfaction and there are all indications that the campaign would be exhausted with rhetoric and propaganda of one kind in support for the amendments.
The sudden change of mind by the government on the date for the referendum amplifies the flaws and misgivings about the reform project and this may be signaling terrible consequences thereof. An astute, objective and knowledgeable individual would have realized that it is premature and hasty to have the referendum anytime within the first quarter of the year 2015; based on the time of the government receiving the report from the advisory committee in July 2014, the important intricacies and necessary preparations that feature such an elections and the need to have the citizens mobilized and motivated to participate actively and wisely in the exercise.
Other than being politically correct, the wisdom behind the committee advising the government of February/March for the referendum poll cannot be grasped, especially when it is generally around this period that the yearly important national budget occupies the minds of the people and the sittings of Parliament.
Emphasis is now placed by the advisory committee on meeting the constitutional timeframe for the passing of the bills in Parliament; at least twelve bills are anticipated, with as much as half of them requiring in-depth treatment. No suitable provision is considered and arranged for the people to make substantial inputs; but efforts are afoot to have the electorate confused in voting on the bills.
Particularly, it is horrendous for the public not to be exposed to a white paper on each of the bills for scrutiny and critique. The substance of the debate in Parliament would be triggered by the discussions and comments from the white papers, and this requires proper time and avenue for the people. With no official opposition then it becomes more applicable and imperative to listen from the people directly.
The absence of timely critical information, the non-provision of conducive fora for intellectual ventilations and the poor representation of sectoral and community groups give evidence of a conspiracy to have the people in ignorance and deceit on the reform project. Although the promotion of the need for the project to be non-political/non-partisan, the conspiracy against the people can be further realized when recognition and response has been given to political parties and professional interests and that there is virtually no accommodation for independent persons and the unaccounted masses.
It is telling how the advisory committee in its deliberation, determination and discretion advised the government to ignore the sentiments of the people, limiting the recommendations for the referendum to 12 from 25, and then tries to press the notion that constitution reform is an ongoing process in which the other recommendations would be addressed in due course.
The stance of the committee is an ugly betrayal when considering that Grenada has a unique case for the reform (not amendments). Since the introduction of the country’s 1974 independence constitution, through to the present phase of consultations, the primary concern has always been the development and promulgation of a governance and political framework which reflects indigenous sovereignty; and so producing various amendment bills to epitomize a rewriting and re-enacting of the constitution cannot suffice for the outstanding cause. The long strenuous drive is for a new constitution, not for changes to the constitution; Professor Simeon Randolph McIntosh had given excellent guidance on this, with a draft.
Notwithstanding; it has been emerging that amending the constitution so as to strengthen democratic practices in terms of to effect good governance, to restrict the powers of the politicians and to empower the people, is not of any genuine concern for the government. The main goal of the government is to institutionalize the regional Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as the final appellate court in Grenada, which is not of ready acceptance by the people, and to transform Grenada into a republic towards an autocratic democracy, which the people have yet to internalize. As such, the government with its ‘stooge’ advisory committee has embarked on strategic moves to manipulate and monopolize the reform project to achieve just that; despite the high financial and social cost to the state.
The remaining time before the referendum will be interesting, with a number of bitter grievances appearing. A major settlement must be on reaching a friendly, convenient and effective format for placing the recommendations as amendments to the constitution on the ballots. Again, the advisory committee will take the prerogative to define, itemize and combine the recommendations and this would be repugnant.
Thus, for example, it should not be tolerated to have the recommendation for the CCJ coupled with that for formalizing the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court and to have the recommendation for the republic to be coupled with the changing of the name of the state of Grenada.
Having a ballot for each recommendation or for each combination of recommendations will document the referendum as a referendum of referenda. Practically this poses a plight for the electorate. The plan for the poll is unconscionable and frivolous and goes against the goodwill and good faith principles and practices of voting as well as against the meaningfulness of a referendum. In fact, the implementation of the plan could be legally challenged.
Grenadians are placed in this predicament simply because CARICOM’s officials, politicians and special interest groups are bent on forging ahead with the CCJ. Making reference to the experience from St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), the manoeuvre is not to have a single referendum towards a new constitution, because of fear that the CCJ will be jeopardized. The real regret about the loss in SVG’s 2009 referendum is not the failure to have constitutional reform but the failure to replace the British Privy Council with the CCJ; so to avoid this constitutional failure on the CCJ, Grenadians are made to undergo a trivial and complicated situation.
Although a statement by the government representative on the advisory committee, Mr Robert Branch, on 20th August 2014 expressed that the new date pronounced by Minister Nimrod was an error and that the original date stands, this mind-boggling scenario condemns the government on its ulterior motive for the reform and it now provides sound grounds for the electorate to Vote No for the reform, whenever the referendum is called within the next five years at least.
It is embarrassing to have superficialities, errors, narrow interests, chaos and suspicions evident with a noble undertaking as constitution reform, and so all right-minded patriots must refrain from associating with this.
The error change of the date for the referendum came on the heels of an open letter from the director of Caribbean Alliance for Equality written to the chairman of the Advisory Committee, constitutional lawyer Dr Francis Alexis QC. The letter seeks the participation of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in the reform process towards ensuring their rights in the constitution http://www.caribbeannewsnow.com/topstory-Open-Letter-to-the-Grenada-Constitution-Reform-Advisory-Committee-22388.html. This letter must not be taken simply or in isolation, and in fact there could be many other extraneous persons who are calling on the government for the entrenchment of their interests in the constitution, on the weight of modern international conventions and on the weight of paying for votes.
The government must not allow it to be said that the letter of the LGBT community is responsible for any change to the date for the referendum, in more ways than one. Dr Alexis, or Mr Nimrod, has a responsibility to respond to the community indicating the level of accommodation that it would get in the reform project and thereby assuring the local population of a position on this pertinent issue.
The public has to be clear and conscious also on this gender based issue, as some of the recommendations going into the referendum is about refining and broadening the rights and freedoms of the individual and this can compromise the moral and cultural fibre of the state.
It must not be missed that the 2014 National Budget in December 2013 by Minister of Finance Dr Keith Mitchell, points to arrangement to be made for the establishment of a trust fund into which the business community, the general public as well as international organizations can contribute to help cover the cost of the reform project. Having the launch in January of the project and the announcement in July of the date for the referendum, the public is still to be updated on the status of the fund including who are the financiers and major contributors.
In light of a cash-strapped economy, an empty treasury, rescue funds via agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), requests for debt relief and the austere sacrifices by the people, Grenada is prone to collect monies for the referendum from any source without questioning, as its history speaks on campaign financing for election-win.
Undoubtedly, the democracy of the government of Grenada is not about the people and the state. The unimaginable disrespect and derision shown by the government, along with the advisory committee, to the people in their quest to construct a new political and governance regime, is worrying beyond the situation that existed with the suspension of the independence constitution from March 1979 to October 1983 during the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) of prime minister Maurice Bishop.
The strong warning message for fellow Grenadians, though, is not to protest or to rebel against the abusive and reprehensible conduct of the government by boycotting the referendum but by ensuring that everyone zealously goes to the poll and carefully Votes No on all of the recommended amendments to the constitution. Your inalienable right and power must be manifested fully; even it is for this once!