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An open letter to the people of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

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05.JUNE.09

by Hon. Arnhim Eustace Opposition Leader

The people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines have been hearing talk of a new Constitution for about six years now. We are now at the stage where the “new” draft Constitution has had its first reading in the House of Assembly, on May 28, 2009, amidst much fanfare.{{more}} At that session, after the suspension of the Parliament, speeches were made by the drafters of the Constitution, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Much of what was said, centred around the supposedly reduced powers of the Prime Minister, but it was an exercise, which was manipulated by the Prime Minister and his administration. For instance, I was told only on the afternoon before that were would be short speeches and that I should speak for only 20 minutes or so, but the Prime Minister spoke for more than 100 minutes and was in fact actually debating the bill. In short, it was an ambush.

We in the NDP hold firmly to the view that a constitution is the living embodiment of a people. It is not an academic exercise or an opportunity for anyone to fulfill their long held dream to write their name into the nation’s history. The Prime Minister has said one thing and done another.

A cursory examination of some of the Prime Minister’s contradictions reveals a frightening list of actions that are if not undemocratic, then a poor interpretation or better yet a total disregard for basic rights and freedoms guaranteed under the constitution.

1.His wanton victimization of thousands of Vincentians who in exercising their freedom of association choose not to openly support the ULP continues unabated since 2001

2.We have witnessed the arbitrary transfers of senior public servants, including the police, to less challenging duties, purportedly allowing the Prime Minister to have a free say in his interference within the force and a free hand.

3.On the question of a fixed date for elections, and the guaranteeing of the expiration of four years and nine months before a government can be removed from office. It is the same prime minister and government that continues to celebrate the roadblock revolution which shortened the term of a legitimately elected government.

4.The same prime minister who calls for improved accountability and transparency where finance is concerned has now put the Argyle International Airport, the largest capital budget in our country’s history, outside parliamentary scrutiny.

5.The mandatory tax imposed on persons going to and from the Grenadines, which was enforced by a law created retroactively to remedy the breach by the government in collecting the tax outside a proper legal framework, is one glaring example of the Prime Minister’s disregard for a person’s fundamental right to freedom of movement, and protection from discrimination on the basis of one’s origin. Only persons going to the Grenadines were subject to arbitrary searches while travelling within the jurisdiction.

6.While the Constitution proposes increased roles for civil society, we have witnessed their emasculation under NESDEC. While appearing to champion the freedom of association with relation to trade unions and praising their power to negotiate, the Prime Minister has in fact been legislating the terms and conditions of wage settlements with Unions representing nurses, teachers, policemen and civil servants, thereby terminating the negotiating process.

In the course of his feature address at the opening of this constitutional exercise, the Prime Minister identified no fewer than fourteen areas of weakness or limitations in the current Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. He stressed that for those weaknesses, “corrections, alterations or innovative answers were available.” Gonsalves highlighted three of these fourteen areas as deserving of special attention. He referred to:-

“1. The controls which the House of Assembly exercises over the executive (the Cabinet) are highly inadequate and ineffective, including the house’s control on matters relating to public finance.

2.The unicameral legislature’s role as a veritable rubber stamp of the decisions or actions of the executive.

3.The excessive powers of the prime Minister in the constitutional and political apparatus were to such an extent that parliamentary government is reduced not merely to cabinet government but to prime ministerial government.”

The commission was in full agreement with the Prime minister with regard to those areas of weakness and indicated, “our seminal challenge therefore, has been to make recommendations which could result in the achievement of an alive constitutionalism resting on the twin pillars of (a) deepening democracy and (b) a reduction in the excessive powers of the head of government.”

1.The much trumpeted recommendations made by the commission to reduce the power of the Prime Minister are merely cosmetic. For instance, in the appointment of the President, the new constitution provides for the Prime Minister to consult with the Leader of the Opposition (Minority Leader). If the Prime Ministry and the Leader of the Opposition do not agree, the appointment is made through a majority vote in the parliament. That majority will be made up of the Prime Minister’s majority in the parliament. So the Prime Minister will get the President ultimately that he chooses. No major change except that the Prime Minister will tell their choice to the Minority Leader.

2.Another area which is being proclaimed as limiting the Prime Minister’s power is limiting the number of cabinet members to thirteen including the Prime Minister. The size of cabinet today is thirteen. No reduction to what is proposed. And the argument being made, that the House would now have twenty seven members, and, therefore, a back bench will develop which can challenge government decisions is a fiction. Those who are chosen by party lists will vote along party lines anyway, so this change again is cosmetic, neither fundamental nor fantastic.

3.The appointment of the majority of members of the Public Service Commission requires consultation with the Prime Minister. What is so innovative about that? Nothing. How does this lessen the Prime Minister’s powers? He gets to talk before he ultimately has his way.

4.THE NDP must categorically state here that we did not agree to the re naming of the Leader of Opposition as the Minority Leader. This exposes a fundamental flaw in the process, because in many instances there was disagreement between the NDP representatives and the government representatives in the committee of the whole. On the issues with which we disagreed, we were outvoted because the government has the majority. However, the political spin suggests that decisions were unanimously agreed. We did not agree to a twenty seven member parliament. It was presented as though we had agreed. We put forward the option of 15 elected members and 6 from party lists, especially in light of the increased demands on the taxpayer which a bigger parliament would impose.

5.There are some improvements in the powers afforded to the Leader of the Opposition (Minority Leader.) These changes are being presented as if the status quo will remain. However, it might well be that the Prime Minister is preparing himself for his new role as Minority Leader.

6.There is folly in mandating that constituency representatives should give written reports to the Speaker of the House every six months, especially where the Prime Minister insists that no monies will be available for constituencies.

7.The Prime Minister pointedly ignored the wishes of the NDP and the views of the constitutional review commission regarding acquisition of property. The CRC agreed with the NDP that the government in acquiring property of private citizens should use the current value of that property as a basis for payment to those persons. The Prime Minister was vehement in his refusal to accept that position and objected to it being a part of the constitution. He unilaterally ignored the wishes of the majority.

In closing I wish to indicate that over the next few months the NDP will be bringing to the public these and other issues and recommendations which have led the party to call for ALL VINCENTIANS to go out and vote NO in NOVEMBER. Especially in light of the fact that that vote provides for accepting ALL OR NONE of the recommendations. We will continue to communicate with the public our reasons for voting NO in NOVEMBER.

While we recognize the importance of the constitutional debate, we should not permit this to distract us from the major issues confronting and impacting the people of our country, including increased charges of police brutality, higher prices, increased VAT on electricity, the plight of banana farmers, the crisis in healthcare and the impact of our plummeting economy on the people of this nation.

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