R. Rose
October 14, 2016

Grenada referendum 3: We can learn from it

For the past two weeks, this column has been devoting attention to the constitutional reform process taking place in neighbouring Grenada, which will climax with a popular vote in the referendum scheduled for October 27, our day of National Independence. Given our own experience in November 2009 and the relevance of the issues, it is well worth examining those issues involved.

Last week, we looked at the seven amendment Bills on which Grenadians will vote. The first of these has three parts, the replacement of the Privy Council by the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), a Code of Conduct for senior government officials, and a change in the Oath of Allegiance.{{more}} In our case, Parliament has itself already amended the Oath to permit Parliamentarians to swear allegiance to our country and not to the Queen of England, “her heirs and successors”, whoever they may be. Some may say “So what?” but it is psychologically very important for the leaders of our country not to have to suffer the humiliation of swearing allegiance to any foreign power.

The arguments about the CCJ are well-known, but I can only express my support for the move to let the Grenadian people decide. Dominica has already made the CCJ its final Court of Appeal and it will be interesting to see how other Eastern Caribbean countries, including our own, will deal with the issue.

The introduction of a Code of Conduct for state officials via the Constitution is an interesting one. Many have been the debates, throughout the Caribbean, about integrity legislation. Many have been the manifesto promises. Making this a reality has, however, been a very different matter, as our own experience has shown. If approved it will be left to be seen how strict will be the Code, but as a measure to curb corruption in high places, it is certainly commendable.

Another area of interest and relevance to our situation, is that concerning the supervision of elections. In SVG, the Opposition has been waging a 10-month long campaign against the supervisor of elections, based on allegations relating to the conduct of the December 2015 general elections here. Our Constitution, like that of Grenada, leaves the supervision of the conduct of elections in the hands of the supervisor of elections and matters pertaining to the boundaries of constituencies up to a Constituency Boundaries Commission.

It is proposed in the Grenada referendum to broaden this process, by substituting an Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC), made up of five persons, two each appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, plus a fifth person, independently appointed by the Governor General. This will be the body, if approved, which will have the responsibility “to oversee the registration of voters and the conduct of elections”, instead of a lone supervisor of elections. It is a mechanism already in place in some other Caribbean countries, including Grenada’s southern neighbour, Trinidad and Tobago. Will that not be a more accountable, more democratic, arrangement?

Also on the elections theme, there is a proposal for establishing a fixed date for elections, as obtains in the USA. This would avoid the unnecessary politicking that we are faced with perennially, with Prime Ministers boasting of election dates in their “back pockets”, or being advised by the Almighty, and all such crap, in what turns out to be a guessing game. Parliamentary elections are too important to be subjected to the whims and fancies of leaders.

Related to this is a proposal to limit the terms of office of a Prime Minister to not beyond three successive terms. It is a matter which evoked strong views during our own constitutional reform process here. Unfortunately, the Constitutional Reform Commission could not agree, nor did the political parties, and the matter never made it to the referendum. However, it is a view on which citizens continue to voice their opinions, especially in the context that, save for a brief five-month period, we have had only two Prime Ministers over the past 32 years. Current Grenadian PM Mitchell is now into his fourth term of office.

Most of these proposals were before our own people in the referendum of 2009. But the gross politicization of the referendum along party lines, the outright lies which distorted the issues and, in retrospect, the tactical blunder of choosing to go for complete overhaul, instead of strategically-selected issues, led to wholesale rejection.

This should not dishearten us, nevertheless. Constitutional reform is as necessary as is good governance and proper use of it will enhance good governance. As we wish Grenada well, we must have the courage to revisit this reform, this time in a more mature, non-partisan way.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.