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NDP and Constitutional Reform

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PATRIOTS IN THE NDP – SAY “YES”

18.SEP.09

by Rene Baptiste, Minister of Urban Development, Culture, Labour and Electoral Matters

Historically, the New Democratic Party (NDP) has been an advocate of constitutional reform in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, at least on the face of it.

Its Election Manifesto of 1984 placed the issue on the reform agenda a mere five years after the Constitution came into effect on Independence Day, October 27th, 1979.{{more}}

Shortly after its electoral victory in July 1984, the NDP government, under the leadership of Mr. James Mitchell [later Sir James], established a Constitution Review Committee, chaired by Sir Rupert John, to address four issues: (1) The establishment of an Integrity Commission; (2) the establishment of an Ombudsman; (3) the inclusion of a constitutional prohibition on “floor-crossing” in Parliament; and (4) the matter of citizenship for husbands who married Vincentian women. The Rupert John Committee duly reported, after a brief period of formal, public consultations. The Report was not acted upon for 17 years of the NDP’s tenure of office, save and except on the citizenship matter.

Fast forward to the general elections of March 2001. The NDP, under the leadership of Mr. Arnhim Eustace, pledged in its Election Manifesto of that year a policy of comprehensive constitutional reform. This promise matched the ULP’s commitment of “root and branch” reform of the Constitution, a pledge that the ULP has kept in government.

ALL-PARTY UNITY

On October 08, 2002, both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, respectively, moved and seconded a motion in the House of Assembly to commence the process of comprehensive constitutional reform. Integral to this process was the bipartisan launch in February 2003 of the broad-based Constitutional Review Commission (CRC), which was mandated to carry the process forward.

Everything was proceeding smoothly on constitutional reform until late July 2007 when the Leader of the Opposition signaled his party’s withdrawal from the process on grounds which have been derided by all independent-minded and reasonable persons. It should be noted that, hitherto, the bipartisan approach to constitutional reform survived even the political turbulence of the general elections of December 2005 and its immediate aftermath.

The NDP was later to rejoin the process in 2009 and participated constructively in the Select Committee of the House, consequent upon the First Reading of the SVG Constitution Bill 2009 on May 28, 2009. At the same time the NDP was pursuing a parallel, and contradictory, course of action in the country. Indeed, even before a Bill was presented to the House, much less finalised out of the Select Committee, the NDP was running advertisements on radio calling for a “No” vote in the referendum.

THE CONSENSUS ON THE CONSTITUTION – BI-PARTISAN APPROACH

When the various Reports of the CRC were debated in the House in 2006 and 2007, both the Government and the Opposition had converged on a core consensus for the reforms. A list of eighteen items of agreement was made known to the nation, as the CRC and later the Constitutional Review Steering Committee (CRSC) continued with their excellent work of finalising the precise contours of the reforms. These were subsequently adopted in the House, as instructions to the Drafting Committee, headed by Dr. Francis Alexis Q.C, with whose appointment the Leader of the Opposition concurred. Nevertheless, the Leader of the Opposition failed and/or refused to appoint his representative on the Drafting Committee. The Prime Minister, in the meantime, had named Dr. Hamid Ghany as his nominee of that Committee.

The bipartisan instructions to the Drafting Committee included:

1. Removal of the Queen as Head of State.

2. Election of a home-grown Head of State (President) by the National Assembly with appropriate safeguards.

3. The consolidation and strengthening of the existing fundamental rights and freedoms.

4. The innovation of a “mixed” election system comprising the existing first-past-the-post constituency system and a system of proportional representation.

5. The abolition of appeals to the Privy Council and the embrace of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as our final appellate court.

6. The establishment of an independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission and an independent Supervisor of Elections.

7. The setting up of an Integrity Commission.

8. The establishment of an Ombudsman to address administrative abuses.

9. The constitutional protection for Local Government.

10. The democratisation of the process and composition of the Service Commissions.

11. The appointment of a Teaching Service Commission.

12. The constitutional protection of the independence and security of tenure of the Magistracy.

13. The effective restoration of the death penalty for murder.

14. The strengthening of the Public Accounts Committee to make it an effective vehicle to enhance parliamentary oversight of the Executive in the area of public finance.

15. The reduction of the powers of the Prime Minister.

16. The increase in powers and responsibilities of the Leader of the Opposition/Minority Leader.

17. The removal of disabilities for a Vincentian who holds dual or multiple citizenship, regarding his/her contesting elections as a candidate.

18. The constitutional prohibition on “marriages of convenience” in which to ground a citizenship application.

19. The removal of the prohibition on Ministers of Religion as candidates in general elections.

20. The limiting of the Cabinet to no more than 12 members plus the Prime Minister.

21. The prohibition on the Attorney General acting as the Director of Public Prosecutions, at the same time.

22. A more of less fixed date for holding general elections.

Every single one of these items has found its way into the new Constitution which is now before the people. The NDP agreed on all these in the debates in Parliament before the matter went to the Drafting Committee. Other issues such as the extent and form of civil society participation in the House, the number of Parliamentarians in the Assembly, and the exercise of the Prerogative of Mercy were left for later consideration by the Committee, the CRSC, and Parliament. In any event, these were not “deal-breakers” since there was a consensus on the fundamentals of the new Constitution.

NEW CONSTITUTION – BETTER THAN THE REST

The NDP is acknowledging openly that the new Constitution is better than the existing one. In one or two instances, the NDP claims that the new provisions could have gone further but that they are an improvement on the existing Constitution. Senator St. Clair Leacock said in Parliament that the new Constitution is “a significant improvement” on the existing one.

A “No” vote by the NDP leadership has nothing to do with the merits of the Constitution. It is all about petty politics focusing on what is good for Mr. Eustace or his faction of the NDP. It has nothing to do with love of country. Accordingly, all patriotic NDP supporters – vote “Yes” for the Constitution. Put your country before your party.

It should be noted that on no occasion over the last seven or so years of debate on constitutional reform has the Opposition put any of its ideas or proposals for constitution-making in writing. Ponder on this, fellow-Vincentians!

It is perfectly in order for NDP supporters to vote “Yes” in the “referendum election” in November 2009 and vote for their party, if they so choose, in the general elections of 2010. Be patriotic: DON’T SETTLE FOR LESS. VOTE “YES”! FOR LOVE OF COUNTRY. VOTE “YES”!

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