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The referendum of 2009 missed opportunity/citizen declaration

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Fri, Feb 17, 2012

by Joel Abraham

The Queen, under the constitutional bill, was to have been removed and a President instated. In the estimation of proponents of the constitutional reform Bill, the Queen, being a traditional and ceremonial functionary, served no real purpose in the context of an independent Vincentian society, and as such, she should have been removed.{{more}} The President, who was to have been the Queen’s successor, was said to truly represent the interests of our society and provide us the opportunity to be independent in the true sense of the word.

Under the current constitution, where property is compulsorily acquired by the State, the State is obligated to provide adequate compensation to the deprived citizen within reasonable time. The proposed method of assessment of compensation was in accordance with principles of fairness and reasonableness, taking into consideration the position of both the deprived citizen and the State. However, this was rejected by the citizens as they contended that the exclusion of the term market value was detrimental to the deprived citizen, in that what is fair and reasonable may often sway unduly in favour of the State, thereby further depriving the citizen of the true cost of the property which has been acquired from him.

The Privy Council, which has been the highest court of Appeal for St Vincent and the Grenadines for a number of years, was expected to be replaced by the CJJ. Arguments to the effect that Privy Council Judges are out of touch with the social realities of the region and their inability to meet the needs of an evolving Caribbean jurisprudence were cited. The CJJ, as the alternative court, was said to provide us an opportunity to further develop our jurisprudence, while properly representing the views and interests of the region’s people.

Under the proposed constitution, where there are increases in the constituency boundaries by the boundaries commission, such decision was unquestionable in a court of law. However, this was rejected by the citizens in that they found decisions of this nature to be arbitrary and allowed for an abuse of power, given that, had the proposal been accepted, the decision could not have been challenged in a court of law.

The first past the post system which was said to have presented a number of challenges over the years was proposed to be replaced by a proportional representation system. The first past the post system operates in a manner which guarantees victory to the party with the greatest number of seats as opposed to number of votes. For example, in the elections of 15th June 1998, where the ULP, although they received 54.40%, was not able to form the government because they failed to gain a majority of seats, a feat attained by the NDP – 8 seats (45.15%). The proportional representation system was said to remedy this defect, in the old system, in that the total number of votes is the determining factor as to which party gains power. Should this system have been operational in 1998, the ULP would have won the election by virtue of the overall popular votes they attained.

Under the current constitution, a 2/3 majority of votes validity cast as a referendum is required to amend the constitution. However, under the proposed constitution, this majority vote was reduced to 60%, representing an easier threshold to be attained by a party wishing to manipulate the governance of the country. As such, the proposal was rejected by the citizens at the polls as being suspect and open to potential arbitrariness and abuse of power.

The Human Rights Commission was said to allow for the setting up of a number of very important institutions which would have served the purpose of investigating complaints against public officials who engage in wrong doing amounting to a breach of citizen’s human rights while in public office. Under the current system, a citizen alleging such a violation would have had to petition the court for recourse, a procedure which is admittedly adversarial and lack luster.

Under the current constitution, there must be a 90 day interval between the first and second reading of Bill intended to alter / amend the constitution. However, under the proposed constitution, this was reduced to 60 days. Citizens were not in favour of this amendment, citing reasons of potential for ease of manipulating the system of amendment to such an important instrument as the constitution.

Under the current system, a Prime Minister may call elections anytime after his term expires with 90 days grace period. Admittedly, this posed a number of difficulties, including the fact that the party in power was often given an unfair advantage while the opposition party, being unaware as to the precise date of elections, may have been put at a severe disadvantage. However, under the proposed system, the date for elections was fixed: that is, after 4 yrs 9 moths, elections had to be called by the ruling party, with a 3 month grace period being allotted. This allowed for a greater degree of certainty and provided a level playing field for both opposition and government parties.

Citizens stated that they did not have sufficient time to study the final document which was eventually presented to parliament. As such, they were unprepared to make a decision as important, far reaching and fundamental as a change to our constitution. This argument is particularly applicable in respect of the short time span between the first and second reading of the Bill and from the actual passing of the Bill and the referendum (September 3rd – November 25th).

Under the current constitution, a young person could only contest an electoral post, or for that matter, enter parliament, where he has attained the age of 21 years old. This was said to place serious restrictions on young, ambitious youths who, though they be young, are quite capable of governing the country. As such, under the proposed constitution, it was proposed that the age be reduced to 18 years, which will appropriately allow for increased youth leadership and participation.

Citizens vividly rejected the increase in the number of constituencies which was proposed to have been 17 as opposed to the current number, 15. Citizens voiced the opinion that to allow such a proposal would further increase the annual payout which the State has to make on an annual basis. These two new representatives were said to bring no change in the way in which the country was governed, and as such, the proposal was strongly rejected.

Under the current constitution, Magistrates, as members of the inferior judiciary, were not sufficiently protected, that is from removal from office. However, under the proposed constitution, the level of protection afforded to these important judicial officers would have been increased, therefore allowing for greater independence of the judiciary.

I am of the firm opinion and conviction that efforts at amending our constitution should be ongoing.

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