Band-aid fixes or constitutional reform

There have been a few elections as of late that could be considered surprising depending on your point of view.  There was the June 23rd Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom (UK) which saw 52 per cent of Britons decide to leave the European Union. Then, there was the November 8 United States Presidential Election that saw Donald Trump trounce Hillary Clinton by a wide margin in the Electoral College votes (306 to 232). Clinton’s consolation prize, at the moment, is the fact that she won the popular vote by more than two million, at last count. Then there was Grenada and the government’s attempt at instituting constitutional changes through a referendum on November 24. The result was not what the government wanted. Each of the seven constitutional amendments was soundly defeated.

The fallout from the result of the Grenada referendum has been far reaching.  Right here in our bit of paradise, Prime Minister Gaston Browne has made it clear that he will not put himself in a similar position, saying that unless a poll indicates that at least 70 per cent are willing to make the change, then there will be no referendum, at least not any time soon.

The day following the devastating defeat in Grenada, Browne said he would not enter a referendum unless he is convinced his government would be victorious. At a press brief following the loan signing for the port, he said, “After we would have conducted a poll this year or later next year, and we do not have the majority, then the referendum will be put on the side.” Adding, “So unlike the government of Grenada, who went into a referendum blind, we will not do so. We will be informed by science. And if the science says the people don’t want it, it will be postponed for another time,” Browne declared. Well, you all know how we feel about polls, so we need to say no more on that topic.

That might seem like a good plan from the PM’s perspective, but there are many people who are unimpressed by the decision. Many have described the PM’s plan as “a show of weakness” and others have simply labelled it as “undemocratic”, referring to it as a “non-sequitur” (a conclusion or statement that does not logically follow from the previous argument or statement). Those people say that the PM might as well say ‘I do not want to hear what he people have to say on this matter until they agree with what I have to say.” They reference the “non-sequitur” — “When I want your opinion I’ll tell you what it is.” Or “When I want your opinion, I’ll tell you what to say.”

Be that as it may, the more important issue at hand is the topic of constitutional reform. Political pundits have come out of the woodwork to provide their hindsight observations on why Grenada voters overwhelming rejected the proposed changes to the constitution. There have been various theories advanced: low turnout, poor education on issues, lack of engagement, and the list goes on.  While each may have been a contributing factor, we believe that the politicians are underestimating the people. 

The world has seen a rejection of the political establishment and people are clamouring for accountability from their elected officials.  On a recent Big Issues programme, former attorney general of Grenada, James “Jimmy” Bristol said the government of Grenada lost its referendum bid to move to the CCJ because its people were left “uninformed” and “wanted broader reform”.  According to Bristol, “It’s time for a new Constitution. The present Constitution – there are too many loose ends. There is too much power in the hands of the prime minister. There is no accountability. Once a

government gets in they can do what they want with impunity.”

His sentiments were echoed by former chairman of the Antigua & Barbuda Electoral Commission (ABEC), Juno Samuel, who declared, “We need to write a new constitution. If we don’t do that I think we’re moving backwards.”  In his opinion, “The people of Antigua & Barbuda want constitutional reform.”  Samuel went further and declared that in the event the government goes through with the referendum on the CCJ in 2017, the people should vote ‘no’ in protest of not being given wider constitutional reform.

Locally, however, Dr Clarence Henry, the head of the National Coordinating Committee, seems to put the defeat down to the complexity of the Bills, especially the one pertaining to the CCJ.   He said what is “however, noticeable about the CCJ Bill is that it contained other clauses in addition to the clause that provided for the replacement of the Privy Council … the Bill also provided for the changing of the name of the Supreme Court in Grenada, it also sought to entrench a Code of Conduct in the Constitution to minimise corruption among public officials. It also made provision for public officials on taking office, to swear allegiance to Grenada and not to Her Majesty the Queen.”

According to Henry, “It is extremely difficult to conclude that the electors in Grenada voted against the CCJ. They could have wanted the CCJ, but did not want the contents of any or all of the other clauses to be included in the Constitution.”  His solution? “We in Antigua and Barbuda have taken a totally different approach. The people of Antigua and Barbuda will be asked one question in the simplest of ways -should we replace the Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice?  … There will not be any other Bills or other clauses in the Bill that will confuse or burden the electorate in Antigua and Barbuda,” he proclaimed.

Maybe we are reading the public wrong, but it seems to us that the people want more than the usual band-aid fixes that deliver a political agenda and not a people agenda. They are tired of the same old piece-meal approach to problems. We think that the people want real constitutional reform through consultation that firmly deposits the power in the hands of the people and includes things like recall power, transparency and accountability. But we do not hold out great hope, for these are things that take the power out of the hands of the politicians and make them accountable to the people, and we doubt that the politicians can stomach the thought that they actually work for the people.