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Constitutional reform: Keep partisanship out!

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It is with a very heavy heart that I note my worst fears becoming reality as far as the constitutional reform process is concerned. These fears are about the degeneration of national debate and discussion on this vital area of political development into the gutters of political partisanship. There has always been a risk in this two-party system of such deterioration, but constitutional reform has weathered the threatening storm over the past six-plus years and we are on the homestretch now. It is a time when maturity should guide individual choice and collective wisdom be placed above perceived interests of political parties. This thinking permeates the Final Report of the Constitutional Review Commission as is exemplified in Sec 363, as follows:{{more}}

“We continue to believe that in the final analysis, meaningful and progressive constitutional reform depends on the will and understanding of our people….”

In fact, one of the three overriding objectives identified by the CRC within the context of its broad mandate was that of minimizing, if not eliminating totally, “political tribalism” from our national politics. This is why particular attention was paid to seeking creative ways for the involvement of civil society in governance, both to widen the pool from which policy makers could be drawn, as well as to create a space for non-partisan politics. This was not just some airy-fairy thinking of the Commissioners as some members of Parliament seemed wont to believe, but was reflected in concrete recommendations from Vincentian people, in consultation after consultation, both home and abroad. Sadly, our Parliamentarians did not heed these voices of the people.

The reform process got off to an excellent start with bipartisan support, an act which the CRC, in its Final Report, called a “blessing” which” has resulted in an incredible degree of public acceptance of the exercise”. This approach continued to characterize the deliberations of the CRC and the public consultations themselves. Differences there were, not just between representations of the political bias. In its First Interim Report (February 27th 2004), the CRC described the process as follows.

“We have clearly understood from the beginning that constitutional review is an exercise which is capable of generating a multiplicity of conflicting, and strongly held opinions. Our guiding principle has been that of according due consideration to each other’s positions in an atmosphere that is at once animated but sober, robust but respectful, and rigorous but retrained.” (Chapter 2, paragraph 7)

The nation, at home and abroad, has traveled a long road since, articulating views and debating points of interest. As we move into the drafting phase, to be followed by Parliamentary debate and then a referendum, one would think that we would all be much wiser for having taken this path. It is only natural that any Draft Constitution will not contain every provision that you or I may desire, individually. Indeed, as a member of the CRC, I am bound by its recommendations. That does not mean that I agree in detail with every single recommendation, just as I may personally have reservations about some proposals coming from the Committee of the Whole House. But there must be give and take, and we have to make a judgment based on the overall content of the document. Do we want a new, more relevant constitution? Is what is to be put before us an improvement on the present one, handed down by the colonisers?

That is the context in which we should approach the reform process. The CRC itself in the Final Report had this to say.

“We trust that Almighty God will impart to our leaders and to all of us the necessary understanding and wisdom to come to the correct decisions as we continue the reform process” (Paragraph 363)

Regrettably, not all our leaders have taken heed. Amazingly, after co-operating in establishing and maintaining an enabling environment, the Leader of the Opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) is now opting out of the process. Last year the NDP withdrew from the reform on the spurious grounds of political expediency (billboards, Syrian voting, the sacking of the Supervisor of Elections). None of these had anything to do with constitutional reform.

Now, with the dust having settled on those frivolities, new excuses have been invented and the NDP is irresponsibly refusing to nominate a member to the Drafting Commission. Worse, it is now threatening to bring partisanship into the mix by opposing the referendum and, presumably, calling on its supporters to oppose. The grounds? The proposed increase in the number of seats and the non-inclusion of term limits for the Prime Minister.

What manner of madness is this? Is it localized or does it extend to the whole NDP camp? Where are the thinkers? Mash yo’ brakes! Don’t jump over that precipice!

(Continued next week)

Renwick Rose is a  community activist and social commentator.

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