In the days following the failed referendum of November 6, 2018, operatives of the New National Party (NNP) administration in Grenada set out on a local and regional campaign to cast blame on the opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC). This is not having much impact at home, because the people know the reality on the ground. They know that this second failure was entirely avoidable and falls squarely at the feet of Dr Keith Mitchell and his government.
Consistently, the NDC maintains that it is not opposed to Grenada acceding to the appellate jurisdiction of the CCJ. Considering the fact that many felt the 2018 general elections were not fairly won, the NDC knew that it would be difficult to convince many Grenadians to participate positively or at all in another round of voting so soon after elections, without some electoral reforms.
The NDC therefore reached out to government to begin discussing the two matters, emphasising that our ultimate goal was to realise a successful referendum. Government initially engaged us and then abruptly ended the discussions, evidently taking a gamble that it could succeed without the NDC.
Indeed, very early on, Dr Mitchell said that his party had just won 60 percent of the votes and all they needed to do was to convince another seven percent to vote “yes”. The NDC knew otherwise, that is why we never stopped our efforts to achieve bipartisan consensus. Up to one week before the referendum we wrote to government urging them to reconsider their stance. We were sharply rebuffed.
Outside the issue of electoral reform, the NDC identified several deficiencies in the Bill proposed and suggested to government that the referendum be postponed for those be addressed. We were ignored.
For the referendum to succeed, the constitution requires a Bill to be approved by the people. So the question on the ballot was; “Do you approve the Bill to alter the Constitution…” Even as calls for postponement also came from the Trade Unions’ Council, civil society and the leadership of the Bar Association, they were also entirely ignored.
On radio and television programs and in the many public forums, calls for a postponement escalated. People were clearly indicating that they did not sufficiently understand the Bill to answer “yes” to the question proposed. Others were saying that they understand but needed certain changes to be made before approving. Everyone unanimously asked: “why the rush?”
The only answer coming from government was that the date was fixed and it is too late to postpone. Never once did government consider that there were no legal impediments to a postponement. Never once did government take into account that the Bill was not circulated and debated before it was passed in Parliament. Never once did they acknowledge that the reading population first saw the Bill when the Referendum Writ was published just weeks before the poll.
When asked to explain certain parts of the Bill, members of the Advisory Committee were giving answers such as: “The answer to that question will bore you,” and, “Just like you don’t need to know the whole of the Bible to get to heaven, you don’t need to know the details or nitty gritty of the Bill to vote ‘yes’.” That was the level of arrogance and condescension that came from the main promoters of the Bill when they interacted with the public.
Then there was the situation with the crisis facing the local judicial system. Between May and October, the High Courts did not sit because there were no court rooms. The public and the lawyers were suffering hardship. There is also the lack of trial transcripts for the Court of Appeal, because the court reporting unit has been under equipped and understaffed for years. The result is that the Court of Appeal cannot hear appeals.
This came to a head just two weeks before the referendum when the Court of Appeal released two convicted sex offenders on bail pending appeal, because they ran the risk of serving their full sentence before their appeal could be heard, due to the lack of their trial transcripts. The public was enraged.
Companies, businesses and charges could not be registered because the Corporate Affairs Office had to be closed in the weeks just before the referendum due to rat infestation.
In urging government to postpone the referendum, the president of the Bar apologised to the nation for the Bar’s lack of involvement in the public education, but explained that when approached, her members chastised that addressing the many issues with the lower courts was priority for them, rather than going to the CCJ. They were in support of the CCJ but not now. Despite all of this, one of the main arguments of the promoters of the “yes” vote was greater access to justice!
To compound matters, industrial action reached a crescendo when, days before the referendum, the Teachers Union announced that its members would be striking on the day before and the day after the referendum. On the eve of the referendum, when most Grenadians tuned in to prime time TV to hear the last arguments for or against the referendum, three union leaders were instead unleashing their wrath on government for reneging on a MOU signed with them on the eve of the general elections.
We rather suspect that the majority of the striking teachers, their colleagues in the trade union movement, who also had issues with the Bill, the lawyers and their suffering clients, and those among the 40 percent of the electorate who consistently support NDC, who voted, voted “no”. That’s why even with all the parliamentary seats, the “yes” vote could not even get near a simple majority.
In the climate as set out above, the super majority needed was never going to happen, but Keith Mitchell and his disciples amazingly did not see it so. They were so self-absorbed, arrogant, condescending and dismissive of others that they really thought by unleashing their winning election machinery the “yes” vote would prevail; and unleash the machinery they did. Unfortunately, in so doing, they insulted the intelligence and ability to discern of the Grenadian voter.
Most people report that they did not vote because they did not understand what they were being asked to vote for or that they simply didn’t see the CCJ as priority given the many other pressing issues at hand. Others who voted said they could not say yes to something they did not understand and those who understood simply did not approve the Bill.
In all of the circumstances, the NDC was right to call for the postponement and in the absence of that, the “no” vote. Mitchell’s NNP government was wrong arrogantly to ignore the collective voices of the people. We therefore take no responsibility for the failed referendum as we consider that as an opposition party with no parliamentary seats, we did the best we could to secure a positive outcome.
Most Grenadians have publicly expressed support for the CCJ and the NDC is committed to continuing the work to ensure that Grenada accedes to the appellate jurisdiction of the court. Unlike the NNP, we believe that this will only be achieved through bipartisan consensus.
Despite his pronouncement that he will not try again as long as he is prime minister, we urge on Dr Mitchell that this posture may appease his bruised ego but it is not in the best interest of the country. The education and information process must continue and a special effort must be made to interest young people in civics and wider constitution reform.
During the last campaign we promised substantial constitution reform and the setting up of a constituent assembly or similar body in furtherance of this. We remain so committed and will do all in our power even while in opposition to realise this.
National Democratic Congress