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Don’t put cart before horse

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Election talk is in the air again, and the usual speculation is making the rounds. Who will win the next election? By what margin? Who running, who not in it? When will the election be called? So what’s new?

The tragedy is that this five-year charade is being played out just as we are supposed to get ready for participation in a referendum on constitutional reform. That process, whether the people approve a change or settle for the old constitution, will determine to a significant extent how the next general elections will be conducted and what will be the rules of governance at the national level for a long time to come.{{more}} That is where the emphasis should be placed, one would think, reasonably so. Yet that is far from the case.

Instead, save for some notable exceptions in the press, and on radio to a lesser extent, the debate on constitutional reform is being clouded by all kinds of irrelevancies and political posturing. Even radio talk-show hosts are pandering to these side issues and ignoring the substantial questions. Are we satisfied with the current hand-me-down constitution? Do we prefer to keep the rules imposed by others or do we wish to frame our own rules? If we decide to have a new constitution, what should be the content?

Besides the content, the process is also very important. It is to our national credit that the Parliament of this land approved a far reaching process of constitutional reform, unanimously so. Most other constitutional reform processes confine themselves to simply asking for submission to either a Constitution Commission or an official drafter with minimal debate and consultation at the people-level. Not so, tiny St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) was given the responsibility (if not adequate level of resources) to carry out an educational campaign, first about what is a constitution, then the contents of our current constitution, before examining the strengths and weaknesses. All this before soliciting proposals for a new constitution.

The debate and consultation took in town and village, mainland and Grenadines, economic and social sectors, civil society organizations and amazingly, Vincentians living abroad in Trinidad, Virgin Islands, UK, Cuba, Barbados, USA, Jamaica and Canada. All these were galvanized into the process. The pity is that there was not sufficient input by critical state agencies such as the Ministry of Education which could have ensured that this discussion would have flourished in our school and education system these past six years. The political parties, too, did not back-up their parliamentary action by mobilizing and educating their supporters to take an active part. I am not even dealing with the current negativity on the part of one.

Having provided a solid platform for proceeding, the momentum was allowed to flag and constitutional reform seemed to fall lower in the pecking order. Now, with the formalities and preliminary phases over, the Draft Constitution being drawn up, there is the difficulty of kick-starting and infusing enthusiasm. We talk of a REFERENDUM in November, but the vast majority of our people don’t even know what a referendum is. Even on this basic issue, education and enlightenment are needed.

Our history of voting is one in which people vote for a person or party. Parties have manifestos, but if truth be told, the manifesto is not the drawing card in an election. In a referendum, the electorate is being asked to cast a vote, not for a party or person, not for NDP or ULP, not for Ralph or Arnhim, but for a proposal or series of proposals as contained in a draft constitution, We are going o be asked to say “YES” or “NO” to whatever draft is put before us.

This is quite some task, because in order to make an intelligent choice, we must be clear what is being put before us; we must understand what we are being asked to do. We have had a chance to shape those choices, though many of us have not taken the opportunity to do so. It is imperative now that we make our voices heard in terms of what we want, before our pencils make the mark that will either have us proclaiming Britain’s hand-me-down as our own, or result in our own constitution, made-in-SVG, by the people, for the people.

We cannot afford to be distracted from this task by any red, green or yellow herrings. We must get our rules of governance right first and then we can determine who we would like to entrust with the governance of our country. Those who have the privilege of helping to shape national opinion have a sacred responsibility to our country and to our future to do so intelligently, helping people to understand what is a constitution, what a referendum entails, how we go about voting in this particular instance and what are the real issues. We have a duty to educate, to point out to people that one will have to make an overall judgement, that it is possible to disagree with one article or proposal but overall be prepared to compromise and accept a whole package. We cannot put cart before horse with talk of election when the framework needs to settled.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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