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Reflection of 1979 – January

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The year 2009 marks 30 years since our country achieved its political independence in 1979. To mark the occasion, a grand HOMECOMING, encouraging Vincentians living abroad to come home and celebrate, is being organized at the national level. Focus on 1979, not just Independence, is,therefore, very much in order, and as part of my contribution to this national effort, I shall attempt, at least once monthly, to devote my column to important events in 1979.{{more}}

January 1979, therefore, gets my attention this week. Two issues are worth recalling, since they have relevance to the events. One was the proposal of the Labour Government of the day for increased salaries for Parliamentarians. It caused a big furore then, though if one looks at the salaries then proposed, one can almost laugh at them in today’s terms. That of the Premier (we didn’t have a Prime Minister in those days), amounted to $55 200 when all allowances were included, for the whole year. That is $4600 per month. The salary of the Leader of the Opposition was to be increased to $14,880 for the year, $1240 per month, while that of the nominated members (Senators in today’s Parliament), amounted to a grand total of $720 per month, allowances included.

So what was the big thing? You would naturally ask. Why the noise then over such measly salaries? In the first place, all numbers are comparative, wages and salaries of working people in 1979, as well as the cost of living then would be reliable indicators. Thus, the Premier’s salary amounted to the combined wages of 46 shop assistants monthly. It could also pay 30 more labourers who they were getting $7.00 daily, if they worked a five day week. So, politics aside, such proposals were bound to cause a stir.

But there were two other aspects of the controversy. One was a rumour that these increases be retroactive to December 1974 when the government of the day assumed office. This would have made a further dent in the Treasury at the time. The other was the granting of pensions and gratuities to Parliamentarians. This was to later become a major political issue with Parliament agreeing conveniently to fix two terms for such qualification, less than 10 years service. This, while the vast majority of workers were without such a right.

It is instructive that though these issues first emerged in January 1979 they were to become later major areas of political controversy in St Vincent and the Grenadines. In the case of the Labour government of the day, the dissatisfaction around these (plus other issues, of course) festered for five more years before erupting in an anti-Labour vote, which catapulted the NDP into office in 1984. Ironically, the same issue, of salary and pensions, returned to haunt the NDP 20 years later leading to its removal from office in 2001. We must pay heed to the lessons of history!

CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM

The other major political issue of January 1979 concerned constitutional reform. By then, negotiations were underway for political independence for St Vincent and the Grenadines. The government had published its own version of a Draft Constitution, largely crafted by the colonial British government, and had invited comments on its provisions. In the meantime Vincentian civil society, in the form of a coalition of 21 civic organizations, had drawn up its own proposals. The National Independence Committee (NIC), as the grouping was called, had embarked on a series of consultations and discussions to solicit the views of the public on this critical issue. Out of these discussions, the NIC, then led by the late, distinguished barrister, Mr. Henry Williams, had put together a package of proposals. These were submitted to Premier Milton Cato and members of the House of Assembly for consideration. Those proposals varied fundamentally from the content of the Draft Constitution put forward by the government. Two areas can be noted here for reference. The first is the Preamble to the Constitution. The NIC had proposed that the Independence Constitution should state in its Preamble, that the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines:

“Acknowledge their debt of gratitude to their predecessors including the gallant Caribs, who struggled and fought in defence of their homeland and all those who labored over the years to secure and maintain justice and equality in our country”.

This was an important point of historical relevance and continuity, as well as making a link both with those who fought to defend our independence against colonial intrusion and those who carried on the anti-colonial struggles.

The NIC Preamble proposals also made reference to the recognition that the principle of economic, political and cultural democracy are essential to the present and future well-being of the Nation, and spelt out its interpretation of those principles in these terms:

“Economic democracy entails just economic reward for labour”;

“Political democracy permits every able citizen to participate regularly in the ordering of thee affairs of the nation”;

“Cultural democracy ensures for all citizens access to knowledge and recreation, the maintenance of human dignity, and the rights of privacy of family life”

Finally, the NIC’s constitutional proposals made a bold and well-argued case for republican status, within the Commonwealth, for an independent St Vincent and the Grenadines. Thirty years later we are yet to realize any of these goals.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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