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SIR JAMES ENTERS CONSTITUTIONAL DEBATE

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18.SEP.09

The national debate on the proposed new Constitution for St. Vincent and the Grenadines took another turn this week with the formal launching by the Opposition New Democratic Party of its “VOTE NO” campaign. This followed the announcement by Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves of the establishment of a “YES VOTE” Committee headed by himself and comprised of several Cabinet Ministers, leading state officials and Chairman of the Constitutional Review Steering Committee (CRSC), Mr. Parnell Campbell Q.C.{{more}} The NDP’s launch itself preceded a meeting of Parliament the following day during which the Bill for the holding of the referendum on the Constitution Bill 2009 was approved by the House.

Highlight of the NDP’s launch was the appearance of its founder, former Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell. There had much speculation as to the participation of the veteran politician in the ongoing debate and the wily Mitchell certainly put all this to rest. Basking in the limelight, Mitchell, in spite of the presentations of Party Leader Arnhim Eustace and Chairman Linton Lewis, was the star of the night. It seems, in the absence of any coherent position from the NDP on the Constitution, that Sir James is the one who has been charged with the responsibility of articulating the NDP’s response. It was an indication that the Opposition is about to pull out all the stops in its bid to have the Constitution Bill not approved by two-thirds of the voters in the November 25 referendum and to consign all the best efforts at constitutional reform to the dust heap of history.

Sir James, the longest-serving Prime Minister in the history of St.Vincent and the Grenadines, made his impassioned plea for what he termed a “VOTE NO” , rather than a “NO VOTE” campaign based on his own historical experiences in the politics of our country and the region as a whole. The subtle twist of the “No Vote” to a “Vote No” revealed his canny understanding of the realities of the process, since those who do not vote will have no influence on the outcome of the referendum. His presentation went back and forth between his own first forays in politics, the pre-independence period and march towards decolonisation, regional political integration and constitution-building in SVG. He then proceeded to make his own proposals for constitutional change, concluding with his call for a rejection of the Constitution Bill.

While Sir James’ reflections, as those of an experienced elder statesman, are certainly most welcome and useful, it is unfortunate that the occasion chosen, one when the Bill has already received Parliamentary approval, and his negative conclusion, will not help in achieving national consensus. One can debate the merits or demerits of his presentation, but in summary they do seem to point to ways and means in which the proposed Constitution can be improved, not arguments against a new Constitution or constitutional reform.

Perhaps the most telling part of Sir James’ presentation was his admonishment of his own colleagues for what he considered to be their tactical error in boycotting much of the proceedings on constitutional reform after July 2007. He believes that the NDP should have, instead, advanced and promoted its own views on constitutional reform and advocated for public acceptance of them. This, in our view is what makes it so difficult to digest the NDP approach. Having concluded “NO”, reasons for doing so have been advanced in changing form, from political expedience to actual constitutional content. Indeed, it is a pity that what is emerging as the Opposition stance on the Constitution Bill now, had not been a long time ago been advanced to help to enrich the process and national debate.

Be that as it may, the die is now cast and we are about to witness a titanic struggle between the Parliamentary parties as the referendum campaign unfurls. Sadly, it is the Constitution itself and our own constitutional advancement which will be at risk. With one eye (or is it two?) on upcoming elections, both parties cannot now afford to back down. Our citizens will be caught in the political storm. Which comes first, party or constituition? Will we be voting by comparing the current Constitution with the one proposed? Or will we reject the proposals, not because they do not represent an improvement on the present, but because they do not go far enough? The outcome will certainly have a bearing on our future.

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