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CONSTITUTION REFORM III

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As the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines get ready to participate in the November 25th referendum on a new Constitution Bill for our country, the debate on the contents of the Constitution Bill 2009 rages fiercely. Ideally, if we could have arrived at a national consensus on what we need in a new Constitution, BEFORE the referendum, we would have been spared much energy, scare resources and further division.{{more}} Instead of opposing political camps, tearing us apart, the period would have been one of public education, getting the young and the old, the barefoot and the well-heeled, the farmer and the vendor, the entire population, better acquainted with the main features of the new Constitution.

But this is the Caribbean, and our tradition in politics is not based on national unity, but rather on political division. If there is no material basis for division, we create or invent some superficial one. We do not seem to be happy without it, no wonder in some quarters even the mere thought of removing the term “Opposition” from our Parliament is met with such…opposition. We must oppose even for opposing sake. Regrettably, that level of intense opposition that we work up against each other, cannot seem to be harnessed in a positive direction – to oppose continuing efforts at foreign domination of our economy and path to development, for instance, or vehement opposition to continuing poverty including the debilitating poverty of the mind.

The Constitution Bill 2009 is now reality. Imperfect as it is, and must be of necessity, it represents a monumental effort in public consultation and dialogue. Many countries, in the Commonwealth of Nations to which we subscribe, have engaged in constitution -making either pre-independence or later reforming their independence Constitutions. I don’t like to engage in the chest-thumping “Never in the history of….” so I prefer to say that one would be hard-pressed to find any process of Constitution-making in those countries as participatory and democratic as the one we have carried out in tiny SVG, not in depth or scope.

From the glorious consensual beginning and the placing of organization of the people at the centre of the process, this Vincentian model was a revolutionary one. Constitutions are normally thought to be the sole preserve of the “learned,” with committees of experts determining what goes into it and legal draftsmen doing the final touches. In many countries, majority Parliamentary approval, not a referendum, is all that is required. This process took a different route. Of the 25 members of the Constitutional Review Committee, a full 16 came from civic organizations, representing all the trade unions, the two major private sector groupings, the credit union movement, sporting-, cultural-, youth-, women-, and farmers organizations, professional Associations (Medical and Bar) and the Christian Council. How much more representative could you get?

Of even greater significance is the fact, conveniently ignored in the heat of the political battles, that the basis of the proposals put forward by the CRC, was not in the heads of the Commissioners, but emanated from community discussions in Sandy Bay and Union Island, High Wycombe and Brooklyn, Belair and Barrouallie, Cave Hill and St. Augustine, to name a few. Wherever Vincentians were gathered in numbers, the CRC went to solicit their views. Interestingly, many of those now in prominence in the national debate, were conspicuous by their absence or low-key presence at those critical stages.

Where things began to take a different turn was in the engagement with Parliament. From the outset, the same Parliament which gave a civil society-led body the responsibility for canvassing the views of the Vincentian populace on Constitution reform, never took kindly to proposals for increasing public participation in decision making at the highest level. Some Parliamentarians were not only hostile, they demonstrated contempt for the role and place of organized civil society. That mindset guided the engagement in what was called the Committee on the Whole House on constitution reform.

In the process the proposals garnered by the CRC from the public had to undergo some level of metamorphosis in Parliament. But that is the legal requirement under the provisions of the constitutional prison in which the British government placed us in 1979. I say prison, because an independent nation accepted British stipulations, written into our Constitution, that we can only change what THEY handed to us if two-thirds of our people so approved in a referendum. Who approved the current Constitution and by what majority? What nonsense are people talking in making red herrings out of the current proposal for a 60 percent majority in changing any new constitution? Let us keep our balance.

To be continued

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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