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Constitutional debate: Mature approach needed



Another chapter in the political and constitutional development of St. Vincent and the Grenadines was written this week with the presentation to the House of Assembly of the Draft bill of our country’s first homegrown Constitution. This is the culmination of six years of hard work on the part of the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC), established by Parliament in 2003 and its successor, the Constitutional Review Steering Committee (CRSC).{{more}} It also follows an extensive period of public education, consultation and debate, throughout St.Vincent and the Grenadines, and in the other major areas populated by Vincentian emigrants and students, in the Caribbean, North America and the United Kingdom.

As we embark on the final phase of this exhaustive process, SEARCHLIGHT wishes to place on record, first, our appreciation of the wisdom and foresight of our Parliament in rising above narrow partisanship in unanimously establishing the CRC and in both parties actively participating in it. We also hereby express our appreciation for the herculean efforts of CRC/CRSC Chairman Mr. Parnel Campbell Q.C. and his hard-working team of Commissioners in carrying out the mandate entrusted to them by the Parliament.

The Draft Constitution is now in the public domain and the ball is now in the Court of the People. It is up to us to discuss and debate, to amend and add, and finally to approve or reject as we deem fit. To its credit, the first act of the CRC was a public education drive. A people who had been governed by a Constitution, not of their own fashioning, and largely in ignorance of its contents, were able to access the Constitution through a massive publication and distribution exercise, unheard of in democracies like ours. It certainly has not been a top-down process, but one rooted in participation of the people.

Despite the massive education drive, however, one gets the impression that it is only now that we are approaching the home stretch that most people are paying attention. Most people are ignorant of the details of the new Draft Constitution, yet, many seem to have already made up their minds about how they will vote, and unfortunately, it seems to be strictly along party lines. Our nation’s Constitution is too important for our people to vote blindly, in ignorance, led like sheep to the slaughter. If we are not careful, the precious and vital making of a Constitution by the people of the country can become a casualty of political partisanship.

The Draft Constitution having been laid before Parliament with the expectation of a Referendum later in the year places a heavy responsibility on us all-Government, Opposition and people. It requires that we bring out the best in us and approach the decision-making phase with the level of maturity and sense of grave responsibility that the situation demands. In so doing, we must first appreciate the glorious opportunity afforded us as a people to decide on the contents of our own Constitution. That is a right that no other Caribbean nation has been able to exercise, not even those with almost a half a century’s experience of independence.

We are calling on each and every Vincentian to use the 90-day period in between the first and second readings of the bill to carefully study the constitution that is being proposed. Careful scrutiny and intelligent debate are necessary and it is our duty to propose whatever changes we deem necessary. If there is something we feel strongly should be included in or taken out of the draft, we urge you to vigorously lobby our parliamentarians, write letters to the press, call in to radio stations and let your voice be heard. It is not too late for changes to be made, and should the cry be loud enough, we are confident that our parliamentarians will heed the call.

It is also critical that just what is a referendum be understood by all before we cast a vote for or against the Draft Constitution. Our experience with the ballot box has been to vote for or against a political party. That will not be the case in the referendum. What needs to be considered is whether the document on which we are to cast a vote represents an advance from the Constitution which presently governs us. We should each ask ourselves if what is being proposed is better than what we have now. A rejection of the Draft represents approval of the current document, handed down to us on the attainment of Independence.

No Constitution in its entirety will ever have the clause-by-clause approval of every citizen. That is impossible. Nor is constitutional reform practical every day. That is why sound judgment, not whether one supports this party or that one, or whether the one thing we wanted most is included or left out, must be the only basis on which we can proceed. We must look at the big picture, consider the constitution in its entirety and decide what is best for our country.