KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent, CMC ? Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves Tuesday made an impassioned plea for parliamentarians to support legislation providing for a new constitution for St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Vincentians will vote in a referendum in November on whether or not to accept the new document intended to replace the one handed down to the island when it attained political independence from Britain 30 years ago.
The legislation for proposed new constitution is being debated after six years of consultations with Vincentians at home and in the diaspora. In recent weeks there have been meetings involving legislators and members of the Constitution Review Committee on possible amendments to the bill.
The main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) has said it would urge its supporters to vote ?no? in the referendum on the basis that the new document does not advance the 1979 constitution.
But Gonsalves told Parliament that he would ?gladly? step down as Prime Minister if it meant that the country would adopt the new document, which he described as being far superior to the existing constitution.
?I cannot believe that any man or woman of my generation or subsequently could go in a referendum where no right is taken away, where no right is diminished, where the constitution is better by far than what we have at the present time and will go and vote no and in the process vote in to keep the Queen.
?I have my duty to do, and I am appealing over the heads of partisan politics to the minds and hearts and consciences of our people, to say to them with all honesty that I would want to see them come to this new constitution.?
Gonsalves said that under the proposed constitution ?a Republican form of government is established with a home grown non-executive President elected by the National Assembly with all the requisite safeguards. The monarchical system of the Queen and Governor General comes to an end under the proposed constitution?.
Gonsalves said that the proposed constitution strengthens the rights and freedoms of every citizen and that it also ?better protects a person?s right to life by ensuring that the deterrence of the death penalty for murder will be employed without being subject to a set of bizarre unreasonable and unacceptable judge made restrictions?.
He said Clause 29 of the new constitution ?restores the death penalty and insulates it from further assaults by judges.
?In fact in the constitution there is a provision which drives a constitutional horse and chariot through the so called Pratt and Morgan decision relating to the time frame in which the penalty of death can be imposed for murder.?
The London-based Privy Council, which is the island?s highest court, has ruled through the Pratt and Morgan decision that persons who have been on death row for five years cannot be executed.
Gonsalves said the draft constitution ?a distinction is made between capital murder for which you must have the death penalty and non-capital murder?.
?Non-capital murder is restricted only to the cases of a murder committed in the heart of passion. In other words you can?t chop off a man?s head in a field where you go to rob him and you have people in England telling you that is not the worse of the worse and the (murdered) man is also disembowelled.
?No, you know I make the point when they tell us that the British people is moving away from the death penalty I say the British government…and the British people are not really against the death penalty, they are just against the death penalty for everybody else other than the Queen because the death penalty is available if you were to kill the Queen?.
Gonsalves said that if those hampering the implementation of the death penalty were so concerned about life, why then should they go and fight ?unnecessary wars to have innocent people killed?.
?No we have to fashion that in our Parliament and among our people and the people are given an opportunity,? he said, noting that the new constitution also strengthens provisions for freedom of expression by ?explicating protecting freedom of the press?.
He said the document also extends the constitutional provisions regarding protection of association to ?include the right to participate in collective bargaining activities and agreements and to form or belong to political parties?.
?At the moment the trade unions do not have a right to collective bargaining….that is something which they enforce by muscle and convention. Every single trade unionist in this country…I am saying to you in your union and in your workplace this constitution making you stronger by providing constitutional protection for the right to collective bargaining.?
Gonsalves said that the new document also protects citizens from the deprivation of property by the state by ?specifying that adequate compensation to be paid for the state?s acquisition of a person?s property must be compensation which in all the circumstances is fair and reasonable to the individual and the state without limitation as to the date at which compensation is to be paid.?
He said the current law stipulates that the date of the compensation should be one year before the taking of the land.
?What this is saying, no, we are not saying it is a year, we are saying what is fair and reasonable in all the circumstances of the case,? he said, adding that the property rights are further protected by a clause that specifies that payment must be paid within 12 months of the government acquiring the property.
Gonsalves also announced that the new document allows for the establishment of a Human Rights Commission where in addition to the protection accorded by the courts, ?there is an independent human rights body covered in clauses 44 to 48 to ensure that the human rights of our citizens are protected.
?For those who complain about police excesses (you) will have a human rights commission to which they can go to get the rights adjudicated upon and not necessarily through a lengthy court proceedings?