R. Rose
August 17, 2010
Keeping Constitutional change on front burner

Sorry, much as I share the concerns of most Vincentians about ensuring that the next general elections provide us with a positive government, my enthusiasm is somewhat dimmed because I am not convinced that such a poll, by itself, will prove to be the solution. I say so because while the qualities and abilities of the men and women contesting will undoubtedly be important, many of our problems are rooted in the system of governance itself.{{more}} As such, electing this or that party or representative can help, but the fundamentals will remain unchanged.

The pity is, we as a people had an opportunity to try and correct these shortcomings, but we blew it. I write here about our historical Referendum on the Constitution of last November. Then we rejected a set of proposals assiduously solicited from our people, at home and in the diaspora. True, there were concerns about the conduct of the process itself, but it is even more true that political expediency, not the long-term good of our country, became paramount.

What is even more worrying is that post-November, we all (well most of us anyway), seem to have forgotten the reason for the referendum in the first place-the inadequacy of the present Constitution-and there is a deafening silence by our political leaders on constitutional reform. Sadly calypsoes are even being sung, rejoicing in the defeat of the constitutional reform process. Too much capital, human and financial, have been invested in the process to allow it to go down the drain. We cannot allow the system of governance to be shoved on to the back-burner.

In this context, we must realize that St.Vincent and the Grenadines is not the only post-colonial society struggling with constitutional reform and trying to establish a more relevant system of rules of governance. Even developed countries are trying to readjust constitutional provisions developed long ago, but now being found wanting in a changed, modern society. Thus, following the May 2010 general elections in Britain, which resulted in what is being described as the “Brokeback Coalition”, commitments have been made towards significant constitutional reform. (See my column of May 14, entitled “Political compromise brings constitutional reform”).

Now the East African country of Kenya, torn apart by fratricidal tribal-based conflict following the elections of 2007, has carried out a thorough review of its constitutional provisions. The most positive outcome of this was the approval by the electorate on August 4, 2010 of a new Constitution to replace the one crafted when Kenya became independent in 1963. It is most interesting to look at some of the new clauses, some especially relevant to us in view of our own aborted process.

SOVEREIGNTY: There was much ranting and raving, a lot of it confused and trivial, over the issue of Sovereignty in SVG’s Constitution Bill 2009. Section 5 (1) of that Bill had set out that:

“The people are the true political sovereign of the State; power belongs to the people…”

It then went on to outline how this sovereignty is to be exercised. In the case of the Kenyan constitution, Section 1:1 states simply:

(1) All sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya and shall be exercised only in accordance with this Constitution.

(2) The people may exercise their sovereign power either directly or through their democratically elected representatives.

REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE: There are some very interesting provisions in the Kenyan Constitution which relate to Leadership and political parties. Thus Article 6:73 deals with “Responsibilities of Leadership”. In it, the Constitution states that authority assigned to a State Officer is to be exercised in a manner that, among others, “demonstrates respect for the people” (“brings honour to the nation and dignity to the office”, “promotes public confidence in the integrity of the office”, and, significantly, “vests in the State Officer the responsibility to serve the people, rather than the power to rule them”. Would these not be useful guidelines governing the conduct of our representatives and Ministers?

Part 2 of the same section also has very noble “guiding principles of leadership and integrity”. They include:

(a) Selection on the basis of personal integrity, competence and suitability…

(b) Objectivity and impartiality in decision-making, and in ensuring that decisions are not influenced by nepotism, favouritism, other improper motives or corrupt practices.

(c) Selfless service based solely on the public interest, demonstrated by-honesty in the execution of public duties, and the declaration of any personal interest that may conflict with public duties.

This matter of integrity in public office is again addressed in succeeding sections including 6:76, entitled “Financial probity of State Officers”. This section reads:

(1) A gift or donation to a State Officer on a public or official occasion is a gift or donation to the Republic and shall be delivered to the State unless exempted by an Act of Parliament.

(2) A State Officer shall not-(a) maintain a bank account outside Kenya except in accordance with an Act of Parliament, or (b) seek or accept a personal loan or benefit in circumstances that compromise the integrity of the state Officer.

These ought to give us much food for thought regarding what are, on our experience, critical areas of our governance. We will look at other aspects including provisions for the representation of women , youth, persons with disabilities and other civil society groupings next week.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.