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National Hero and Constitutional Reform conversation

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Two matters that have been generating some discussion, at least in the media, and which are likely to continue to do so, at least, for the next six months, have to do with Constitutional Reform and the proposal to establish three more national heroes. One expects that on issues such as these, there will be disagreement or rather differences of opinion. No government should attempt to use its majority in parliament to get its way on these matters without taking into account the concerns being voiced. And, furthermore, one should not assume that there are hidden agendas.{{more}} The discussions/debate surely cannot continue indefinitely and the government by virtue of being government will have the final say, but it must handle these matters very delicately and strive for consensus where this is possible. The News newspaper of March 27 carried the following caption in one if its news items- “PM blasts columnists/commentators”. According to the news report, the Prime Minister was critical of what he called a lot of “petty commentaries”. This apparently was sparked by what appeared to have been some opposition to the proposal to name three of our country’s political leaders as national heroes. The Prime Minister said that “every single commentator” portrayed themselves “as absolute judges” and claimed that they were of the view “that he lacked virtue despite the success he has had as Prime Minister”. He then said, according to the News, that they, meaning the commentators, “have never run for office and some of them will never hold the office of Prime Minister”.

Now this is a conversation about the selection of national heroes, and persons have a right to state their opinions on the issue. I don’t know which of the commentators can claim or have set about to be absolute judges. But they have a right to state what they feel. I am not sure how the matter of running for office fits into this discussion. Maybe I am missing something. Can there not be a sane conversation with ideas contending and persons having the right to disagree with the Prime Minister and to say so? Those comments drew swift reaction from the News and from R.E Browne who states, “…can anyone be truly serious to suggest that my understanding or interpretation of what qualifies a person to be a national hero can only be defined by the politicians and their advisors who recommend persons for such status. Does it not matter whether or not the masses hold a differing viewpoint?”

Part of the conversation on the appointment of national heroes also has to do with what some persons, including myself, regard as the haste in appointing national heroes when we have not yet decided what this national hero thing is all about. What will be the process to decide on these national heroes? Will it simply be a vote in parliament? Cato and Joshua functioned in a hostile political climate despite the coming together in their final days and the views that were held about them would have been influenced by that hostile political climate. This is one of the reasons why some persons have suggested allowing some time to pass during which we would have been further removed from the emotions of the time and be in a better position to judge the contributions of these persons. I say all of this despite the point made about the appointment of Grantley Adams, Errol Barrow, Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante. As for George McIntosh, most people I am sure know very little about him. Let the education begin and let the arguments contend. The position taken by some of the newspapers as voiced by the News “that care and time should be taken in selecting the second national hero” is sound. What is really the haste? It is as though the future of the country depends on having another national hero at a time when we have done little with the one we have except to carry out this ritualized ceremony of honouring him on March 14 each year.

The Constitutional Reform Issue

It has been 30 years now since we were given a made- in- Britain constitution, something taken from a British designed constitutional template. We have had thirty years of this and have seen its shortcomings and also its virtues, whatever they might be. It must also be borne in mind that the people are the ones who make the constitution work. For years people in the Caribbean have been talking about constitutional reform and about having a home based version. So there is wide acceptance of this. Having said that, however, it should not be anything goes simply because it is homespun.

I believe that there is consensus on a number of the proposals for the new constitution or rather the revised constitution. I cannot see much opposition to the discarding of the Constitutional Monarchy nor on matters relating to the establishment of a Teaching Commission, the establishment of an Integrity Commission and an Ombudsman and a number of other matters. In the final analysis, what will matter are the details as would be seen in the draft constitution. I must say, up front, that I am not in favour of term limits on the position of Prime Minister. I have not come across anything to convince me otherwise. I also do not accept any argument for an increase in the membership of the Assembly- clearly not for a country of about 108,000.

The details are what will really matter. I am not sure how you are going to make a fixed date for elections work with a vote of no-confidence. I will also like to look at the provision relating to a mixture of the ‘first-past-the post system’ and a ‘list system of proportional representation’. Since there is broad agreement on a number of the proposals what needs to be done is to work through the proposals on which there is disagreement and maybe we can come up with final proposals that have greater acceptance. Of course, not everyone is going to accept everything, but we should pay particular attention to those proposals that are strongly opposed by some people. This is not the time to show political muscle or take positions that are purely political.

The matter of the termination of appeals to the Privy Council is still a difficult one for some persons to accept, based largely on the way our Court system works. But these are matters we can work around. There are a few other matters about which there is strong disagreement. This is the challenge that we have to face. Let us set up mechanisms to work through these and come up with a final product with which most people will be satisfied. Failure to take this approach might result in a situation where persons forget everything else and vote on political affiliation, especially since we are so close to general elections.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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