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Civil society and constitutional reform (Pt1)

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As happens occasionally, pressing duties on a working visit to Europe resulted in me defaulting on my weekly commitment to SEARCHLIGHT for the past two weeks. Sincerest apologies to my readers and to the editor of the paper for any inconvenience caused. I do appreciate the concerns expressed.

Today, I want to once more revisit the Constitutional issue since it is of fundamental importance but tends to get shunted aside in the hurly-burly of our local politics. And there is certainly no shortage of issues. In particular the ULP government has its hands full in this its second term especially on economic issues. {{more}}For a party which boasts that the ULP government is a “labour” government, meaning a pro-worker administration, the problems at the Port, the Marketing Corporation and Town Board must be a huge embarrassment. Sending home workers in this “hard guava crop” deprives them of a means of livelihood for their families and needs immediate attention. More on this subsequently.

This week though, I wish to draw attention to developments on an important national issue, that of constitutional reform. On October 8th, 2002, the parliament of St. Vincent and the Grenadines agreed on the Terms of Reference a Constitutional Review Commission charged with the responsibility to: “…do all and every act necessary to review the existing Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and to submit recommendations in the Reports to the House of Assembly regarding reforms of, and /or changes in, the existing Constitution.”

Subsequently Parliament approved the appointment of a Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) which is remarkable in the nature of its composition. Significantly 18 of the 25 members of the CRC were drawn from CIVIL SOCIETY, indicating that Parliament as a whole was indeed serious about pioneering a path of civil society participation in governance. Additionally the CRC was provided with resources (not without some bureaucratic obstacles in the public service, though) to enable it to carry out a broad campaign of public education and consultation through the length and breadth of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Moreover this consultation was extended to the Vincentian diaspora, in North America, United Kingdom and the Caribbean, indicating clearly the expressed intention to get this section of our population integrally involved in the process.

The CRC has handled its responsibilities with maturity. It has provided Parliament with the requisite Reports and such is the appreciation of the value of its works and its existence has been twice extended by Parliament for consultations between the CRC and the full Parliament on its recommendations. In a country where we lurch from day-to-day on political tit bits and where issues are not often contextualized but viewed and dealt with often from a partisan political standpoint, the significance of the constitutional review process tends to get downplayed and even lost. We cannot afford to trivialize it in that way.

It has been stressed over and over that the process of overhauling our constitution is not just a matter of legal, political or constitutional amendments. It goes right to the heart of our governance and in it lies solutions for coming to grips with the economic and social problems facing our society in the 21st century. The review exercise is part of modernizing our societal framework, of providing us with the appropriate democratic mechanisms to allow for the “deepening of the democratic process” of which we are so fond of speaking.

Meaningful Constitutional review in the 21st century cannot proceed with the old tribalistic political structures inherited from the 1950s and tainted by bitter rivalry and old antagonisms which have multiplied over the years. Our political parties of today may carry different names but they are fundamentally inheritors of the base support of the PPP and SVLP of the fifties. Half a century of confrontational rivalry still have whole families, entire communities in some cases, still boasting: “Me ah dead Labour” or “Me never vote Labour yet”: irrespective of the change in leadership or outlook which may have occurred over the years. How can constitutional review address problems like these?

That is the sort of enlightened approach we ought to be adopting. And in such an approach one must naturally consider what can be the role if Civil Society in the modernising and democratising process. It is the subject on which I wish to make some comments in this three-part series. (Part 2 Next Week).

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