November 13, 2009

Yes or No?


November 25, the date of the national referendum on the Constitution Bill 2009, is approaching, and the political landscape of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is more and more taking on the appearance of a general election campaign. The respective political platforms are blaring out their respective “Yes” or “No” messages, billboards are being erected, rallies are being organised and the intensity of the debate is felt both at the level of the media as well as personal exchange.{{more}} We are having a virtual general election without candidates.

Seven years after it appeared that the issue of constitution-making could override narrow partisan interests, we have fallen back into warring political camps. Consequently, a matter which we should have used to sidestep the colonial ploy of a one-third blocking minority, by being at one on the subject, has seen us fall into the trap of exposing ourselves to the danger of continuing with a Constitution which we all agreed was unsuitable in the first place, for that will be our reality if the Bill does not get the required level of approval.

Amazingly, in a campaign split between affirmative and negative, there has never been, save for the late insertion of former Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell, any significant dissent against constitutional reform. Nor have there surfaced any fundamental disagreements, content-wise. In fact, from all reports, the major points of difference were between Parliament as a whole and the proposals of the Constitution Review Committee on such matters as the National Advisory Council of Elders (NACE) and civil society representation in Parliament.

Yet, as we moved further along the tortuous path, rather than consolidation of the national will to move forward as a people determined to take responsibility for our future, there became evidence of greater divergence on matters, most of which have nothing to do with the central issue of constitutional reform. The result is a virtual dry-run for the next general election and a consequent waste on precious resources on campaigning.

Judging from the campaign, it is hard to discern the single most important reason for the opposition to the Constitution Bill 2009. All the major criticisms seem to go in the direction of content preferences. Critically, those who now raise them, when we have reached crunch time, seemed to have neglected to make the input when it would have counted most. To compound this, it is a mystery why the Opposition neglected to name a representative on the Committee which drafted the Constitution, based on the Report of a Commission on which it was authoritatively represented and participated actively.

So we are left with two weeks of campaigning. Even as we appeal for sanity and the exercise of reason and tolerance, we must also call on the wider society, the whole range of religious, social, community and economic organisations not to allow the campaign to deteriorate further, but to play their part in lifting the level of the debate, in helping to increase the degree of understanding of the real issues and by so doing fulfilling their duty to the nation.