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Teachers’ judgement raises questions and places issues on the table

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The judgement handed down by Justice Brian Cottle last week in the matter brought against the Government by three teachers who contested the 2010 general elections for the New Democratic Party should not be viewed as a victory of one side over the other.

Rather, the decision should be viewed as a clarification of the issue and guidance for the Public Service Commissions (PSC), the St Vincent and the Grenadines Teachers Union (SVGTU) and teachers who wish to run for national office in the future.{{more}}

But that should not be all we get from the judgement. Although the teachers’ claim was thrown out by the judge as being “entirely hopeless”, the judgement raises certain questions and places on the table pertinent issues that should now be dealt with by the Parliament of the country.

The teachers were members of the SVGTU, which had signed a collective agreement with the Government that members wishing to contest general elections would be granted no-pay leave of absence to do so. In the event that the member was unsuccessful, that member would return to his/her original post or one of equivalent status, all benefits intact. However, the Constitution of SVG says no public officer shall be qualified to be elected or appointed as a representative or senator. Therein lay the conflict.

After not receiving a positive or negative response from the PSC in response to their leave applications, the teachers resigned their posts to contest the elections, were unsuccessful, and when they applied to the PSC, were not reinstated.

The question that immediately comes to mind is how could the legal advisors for both the SVGTU and the Government have allowed signature of such an agreement knowing that it was unconstitutional? Any teacher who had successfully contested a seat in the general elections after having been granted leave from the public service would certainly have been at risk of having his election overturned by the Court; he/she having been ineligible to stand for election in the first place.

But the status quo should not be maintained. In a small nation like St Vincent and the Grenadines, the number of persons qualified and willing to run for national office is tiny. This situation should not be made worse by alienating teachers from the process, who, as the judge said, do not hold positions of any particular sensitivity in the public service.

Now that the court has ruled, Parliament should come together to remedy the situation, as this entrenched provision of the Constitution can only be amended with a two-thirds majority in Parliament; meaning that the Opposition would have to vote in favour of any amendment brought by the Government.

Despite the present expressed position of the Opposition that they will not attend Parliament on a regular basis, it is not unreasonable to expect that they will support such an amendment in principle, as teachers from both sides of the political aisle have been affected by this restriction. If at all possible, consideration should be given to making any amendments retroactive to make it possible for eligible teachers who were unsuccessful in the elections, who lost pensions and gratuities after decades of service, to be able to reclaim some of their benefits.

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