by Sir Lawrence A Joseph
An analysis of the voting pattern of the recently held referendums in Grenada suggests that it was highly influenced by a one-sided partisan initiative. The majority of participating voters seemed to have followed a policy directive of the main opposition political party and voted ‘No’ to all of the Constitutional Amendment Bills. Some are of the view that this policy directive was aimed at registering a protest vote against what the party considered to have been a lack of proper process regarding constitution reform. Others see it as aimed at preventing any positive legacy to be associated with the governing party especially being so close to a general election. Still, others see it as being highly paradoxical as the main opposition party had agreed to and signed the recommendations which were made to government by the Advisory Committee.
What happened on 24 November, last, may well constitute a pyrrhic victory on the part of the main opposition party as bitter ashes may have been left in the mouths. This ‘victory’ may well be like winning a one-day match but ultimately losing the real test match which follows. The long and short of it all is that electors turned down a most historic opportunity to amend the Constitution in order to improve the fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals, to guarantee that both men and women must have the same opportunities in all spheres of life, to make special provisions for people with disabilities, to guarantee free educational tuition to young persons, to improve the electoral process by making it more transparent, to curtail the power of the Prime Minister and government, to ensure that corruption in public office is minimized, to enable final appeals from the courts to be more accessible and less costly, and to engender a spirit of nationalism amongst all nationals in the islands of Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique, among other things. The stand which was taken by the Evangelical Churches against the ‘gender issue’ is separate and apart.
One may wonder why people would agree to follow the dictates of a political party instead of individually rationalising the merits and demerits of those most important bills? Is it a case of the dog and its shadow where the dog with a bone in its mouth sees its image in the stream below so it drops the real bone into the stream in an effort to get the reflection of the one which it sees in the water? Indeed many promises were made about having a better process for organising a future constitutional referendum. Perhaps no thought was given to the fact by electors that one could know what one could get now, but one cannot know what one could get later. In any event, the advising party has to win a general election first, and even so, this does not guarantee two-thirds majority support in a referendum.
Was there sufficient public education on the referendums, or was it the case that electors, in general, did not take constitutional reform seriously? The fact is that people, in general, had a number of opportunities to fully understand the bills. The Constitution Reform Advisory Committee comprising a wide diversity of members began its work over two and a half years ago on 16 January 2014. The Committee held myriads of consultations all over the state on a number of constitutional issues. It would seem to be most irrational that this Committee should be blamed for electors not having the opportunity to obtain a proper understanding of referendum implications. Notwithstanding, one may take the horse to the water hole but one cannot force the horse to drink.
The low turn-out at the polls suggests that electors, in general, did not take the referendums seriously. Approximately 22,000 persons or 32% of eligible electors voted and approximately 49,000 persons or 68% of eligible electors did not vote. During the general elections of 2013 and 2008, the voter turnout was 87.6% and 80.3% respectively. Perhaps it was the novelty of the referendum process in Grenada which caused electors to have much apprehension which influenced them to stay away from the referendum polls. As a consequence, there is a lot of merit in the idea that is now being touted that referendums should take place at the same time that general elections are held. This initiative would certainly be more cost-effective. Many countries all over the world utilise this dual process.
It may well be worth a thought to begin the abovementioned initiative by having a referendum on the Caribbean Court of Justice at the time of the holding of the upcoming general election: a matter of beating the iron whilst it is hot. After all, Caricom Heads have signed an Agreement for having the CCJ as the final court of appeal and Grenada has already paid its dues to the CCJ Trust Fund for this service. As an added measure, the Rights Bill may also be considered. However this Bill may have to be subdivided with the controversial “gender issue” being left out. General election cum Referendum may well be the way to go.