R. Rose
August 14, 2009
Constituency and the parish

The process of registering of eligible persons for the new national Identity Card (ID) is continuing at the various registering centres. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines registration for an ID is, in the minds of many persons, connected with the electoral process, so much so that I have heard persons say that they are not going to vote so why should they register. Fortunately this erroneous thinking is on it way out now that most persons have come to realize the importance of the national ID, irrespective of voting.{{more}} The confusion is also reinforced by virtue of registration being done by electoral constituencies. It is given rise to another related area of confusion since in some areas the registration is being done at locations different to those at which people are accustomed voting.

The constituency has overtaken the traditional parish as an area of district demarcation in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. For reasons perhaps best known to historians, the “parish” idea never seemed to catch on here, unlike say Barbados or Grenada. So whereas in those two countries mentioned their constituencies bear relation to the parish, for example St.John’s North or St. David’s South, the only reminder that we have parishes in the constituency demarcation is in St. George (West and East). The others are named based on Windward, Leeward, Kingstown or the Grenadines. An interesting phenomenon worth some research and explanation.

The whole constituency idea has evolved out of the Westminster parliamentary system foisted upon us by the British colonial government. It is a system which has its pros and cons, and students of political science as well as political analysts are fond of debating its merits and demerits. But our experience as a people has taught us that it is an incubator for political bacchanal and strife anytime there are close electoral contests. Vincentians have gone through the contentiousness that followed the 1966, 1972 and 1998 elections where the first-past-the-post system failed to provide us with satisfactory results.

At a Caribbean level, too, the constituency system brings with it the grave responsibility for the demarcation of boundaries. That is in itself a hotbed of contention with opposition parties often accusing governments of gerrymandering, that is, redrawing constituencies in their favour. There have been no end of court cases right up to the Privy Council on these grounds. Right now St. Kitts is embroiled in such a conflict as it prepares for the next general elections, expected soon.

For these reasons, there are many who contend that a system of proportional representation gives a fairer overall result. On the other hand, that system has the disadvantage of potentially removing direct representation at the constituency level since it is the party and not the voters in a particular area, which will exercise the choice of representation. In small countries like ours, the role of the elected member of Parliament as “constituency representative” is not always clear. Over the years, the political parties in power have tended to institutionalize the “constituency representative” to the extent that it becomes a source of political patronage or potential victimization. One can hardly hold a function in the constituency now and not invite the Parliamentary Representative to speak, for fear of being branded partisan.

The new Constitution Bill 2009 attempts to address this question of first past-the-post versus proportional representation issue by marrying them in what may prove to be a hotly debatable combination. The Constitution Review Commission (CRC) itself made valuable efforts to engender national discussion on the whole question of the nature of politics in our country. That conversation needs to be deepened and the issue of constituency and parish must be part of it.

This will also provide a useful backdrop to the related burning issue of local government. A Local Government Commission was established and, to the best of my knowledge, presented a Report. What has become of it? Why is it not part of the entire constitutional debate since surely both processes are inter-related? We cannot short change the process for political expediency. There are no easy solutions but we must make the whole journey.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.