Dr. Fraser- Point of View
November 13, 2009
Reflection on the proposed constitution (part 7)

THE CAMPAIGN for November’s Referendum has been assuming proportions that many had not dreamt about. What is clear is that an enormous amount of money is being spent. There must indeed be cause for concern when our Prime Minister is quoted as predicting a difficult year ahead.{{more}}

The News of October 30 quoted Prime Minister Gonsalves as saying, in reference to St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the rest of the region: “These economies are experiencing negative growth; unemployment has risen; governments’ revenues have been falling; the fiscal situation has been deteriorating and foreign investment has been reduced from a flow to a trickle.”

Clearly something is amiss somewhere because if this is the prediction, why are we operating as though money is not a problem. The situation is “insane” for clearly if the prediction is for a grim year then we have to function with this in mind and prepare for what lies ahead. Surely this is not the way we should be going about our preparations. But there is probably some method in the apparent madness.

Two things that have been promoted as positives about the Constitution are that it is home grown and is better than what exists at the moment. It might be home grown in some strange way, but it has simply copied a lot of what existed before for obviously we are still clinging to some of the essentials of the Westminster system that has been part of our Constitutional history and development.

That it is better than what exists is no big thing because we would expect it to be, for after all the exercise aimed to improve on what existed before. But this is not the essential point. A constitution is not something you want to amend every few years so we needed to ensure that we get it right this time around, which is why the undue haste is baffling. What did we really set out to do? Was it to ensure that we had a new constitution or was it to try and get the best constitution that we could?

Part of the process should have involved educating people not only about the constitution per se but about issues related to governance and their role in the process because a constitution is a set of laws on how a country is governed. What is the people’s role in that process? Is it simply to vote? I am convinced based on conversations with many people and many questions that have been asked of me that there is a great deal of ignorance. It appears to some that what the constitution is all about is to know whether to vote Yes or No. End of story until next Referendum!

It has to be remembered that a referendum is a new experience and thinking about or even being told what is or should be in a constitution is itself new. Many people had not before this time bothered themselves to read and understand what a constitution is all about. The majority of people I believe have never even seen the constitution that currently exists so that there is no frame of reference. Obviously in understanding what is proposed it is important to know what exists now so that a comparison could be made. But we are into a Yes or No frame of mind and we simply pull out things, often out of context, to satisfy our predisposed positions.

What is quite obvious is that some of the new provisions in the Constitution will add significantly to the cost of running government. And remember next year will be a difficult year as we are told! But even this is not the point for the increased costs could be considered an investment. And what is that investment about? The investment is about better governance. Really I am extremely embarrassed by the fact that after 30 years of the recovery of our independence our country is more divided than it has ever been before. I maintain that a small country such as ours, with limited resources, where the commanding heights of our economy are shaking, can never develop in the way it should. We have to get our people pooling their resources and working toward a common goal. I am certainly using the term resources in the broadest possible sense. Failure to do this is a recipe for disaster. So when I look at the Constitution I look beyond the particular clauses and chapters to understand where it is taking us.

This takes us logically to Chapter 2 of the Constitution, “Guiding Principles of State Policy.” These constitute in a way, a mission statement, a vision as to where and how the country wants to go. It is not a Fairy Tale so one looks at the Constitution to see the channels, the methodology perhaps that can lead to the realisation of that vision. The American Constitution was built on avoiding some of the pitfalls of British colonial rule. Their system of checks and balances was one way in which they sought to avoid them. The British have an unwritten constitution but what exists today has evolved out of treaties, legislation, court judgements and statutes from the country’s history.

We have had the 30 years experience of living under our Independence Constitution. The new constitution should have been driven by a number of issues that have arisen over the past 30 years and it does to some extent. What is missing however is the area of political culture focussing on the behaviour of our political actors, the way we have gone about governing ourselves. We leave a lot up to our politicians as though they are the most righteous characters that God has created. We have even given them the authority to make provisions for framing the Integrity Commission and the laws/regulations that are supposed to hold them in check and discipline them.

The right to work sounds good and some constitutions particularly in the Socialist World have included them, but what does it really mean to us? I am not even concerned about ensuring that everybody has work because this depends on the state of development of the Country and the climate that is created to satisfy this. With the national cake remaining small what is there to ensure that not only those who sing from the same song sheet will have the right to work. Would the Ombudsman deal with this? Who prescribes the terms under which the Ombudsman functions? It is like appealing from Caesar to Caesar. Let us distinguish between nice words and political reality.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.