By J K Roberts (Sound Public Policies Advocate)
Chairman of the Constitution Reform Advisory Committee (CRAC), former Law Lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Dr Francis Alexis QC, declared the exercise for reforming Grenada’s Independence Constitution as an “Open University”, under the execution of CRAC.
This declaration was made from the launch of the CRAC in January 2014 by Prime Minister Dr Keith Mitchell, and it should be taken to mean foremost that Grenadians would be afforded the opportunity to participate fully in the exercise of the Reform Project, and that at the end of the exercise Grenadians should be well learnt on the contents and applications of a ‘new constitution’. No doubt, genuine ‘attitude and approach’ for the project by the powers-that-be will engender interest and ownership by Grenadians (near and far) for the reform(s) and this will translate to enhanced pride, patriotism and productivity in the nation.
Accommodating and engaging the local people in the constitution reform in an Open University forum would be a far cry from the closed conference which took place outside of Grenada, at Marlborough House in London, leading to the handing-down of the Constitution in February 1974 by Her Majesty of Great Britain. Further, in the unpleasantness and darkness that characterizes how Grenada attained its independence is that this constitution was laid before the Parliament at the Court at Buckingham Palace in London and then imposed on Grenadians, without the shedding of light on its provisions and the soliciting of its endorsement by the local people. It is important though that the concept of the Open University is not really a plausible notion to disguise the perpetration of the ugly independence scenario, typifying political manoeuvring to maintain domination from ‘abusive and unaccountable’ governance.
The concept of the Open University is appropriate and essential to reduce controversies and thereby promote consensus on the issues for the constitution reform. Inherent in this concept is the civil duty of lifting the national consciousness and sovereign dignity of the people. Moreover, the concept embraces the principle that the people are pivotal in the formulation and in the reformation of a constitution and that the people need to be educated on the pertinent issues in order for them to make an informed decision at the constitutional referendum which is required to adopt the proposed provisions for whatever to be the constitution. A most democratic and patriotic medium to facilitate a ‘satisfactory and successful’ referendum is through a well coordinated Constituent Assembly, incorporating an Electoral College and a Fount Committee; read the articles “Grenada Constitution Reform: Process is Critical” and “Grenada Constitution Reform: The Concrete Path.”
The benefits of executing an effective Open University are not just about the constitution reform, but by extension, the people will become aware and knowledgeable on key aspects of political governance and parliamentary democracy; constitutional processes, options and provisions making reference to what exist in different parts of the world; legal and moral principles within international conventions and on such matters as the Caricom integration movement. Particularly, the people need to understand the rationales and circumstances for the structure and substance of the present constitution, as well as the rationales and circumstances for reforming it. In addition to the tremendous resource personnel and material exposed to, Grenada has an advantage with its experiences from the constitutional challenges being faced. Dr Alexis himself authored many relevant texts including Changing Caribbean Constitutions (1983) and Law Professor Simeon McIntosh (late) texted amongst others, Caribbean Constitutional Reform (2002) and also has been developing a draft of a new constitution for Grenada.
A key factor for a ‘creditable and respectable’ outcome of the constitutional referendum is to strive to have a significant number of the electorate participate and vote, and doing so independent of party politics. Richard Albert of the Boston College Law School, in his article “Constitutional Reform in Grenada”, strengthens the point on the need to safeguard and to make more stringent the requirements for recognizing and certifying a referendum. He writes, “To make the process of constitutional patriation a truly participatory national exercise, the government should set a minimum level of voter turnout. Setting the floor at two-thirds of all eligible voters seems appropriate though it would be preferable to have even more participation. This high quorum requirement would, in turn, place the onus on the government to organize voter education campaigns and to undertake civic engagement programs in the lead-up to the referendum.” Given that persons are despondent and disinterested on national matters and are cynical about politicians, then serious efforts with the Open University must be expended to instill confidence in the electorate especially the youths.
Unfortunately, the declaration of Dr Alexis has proven to be a failure; or for that matter, it has been a sham full of rhetoric. To date, no substantial efforts by the CRAC can be established to give a reasonable semblance of making the Open University a meaningful reality. Nothing gives the sense that Dr Alexis is interested in entertaining intellectual debates and technical analyses, as well as independent-mindedness and critical thinking on the constitution reform. Instead; he boasts of conducting more consultations with the people on the constitution under CRAC, as compared with the events during the independence era and the previous constitutional reviews had, and of arriving at reasonable compromises with the people on deciding on a piecemeal constitutional reform process. What is clear though is that the operations, sessions and deliberations of the CRAC have been biased and lacking. Also “Grenada Constitution Reform: A One-Sided Affair”.
The ill-intent of the Open University concept is also reflected with the ill-preparations on the part of the Government and the CRAC for the constitutional referendum which was first anticipated to be at the end of the year 2014. In fact; haughtiness and haphazardness marked the thrust by the powers-that-be for the reform(s), with the oversight and offence on observing crucial elements which include respecting the views and wishes of the people and adhering to institutional protocols. Significantly too, is the apparent total ignorance of the existence and usefulness of the Referendum Law (Cap. 279, 1990 Revised Laws). These irregularities disgusted the people and have had the people holding CRAC accountable and questioning the accreditation of the Open University. Review “Grenada Constitution Reform: A Referendum Law is Required” and “Grenada Constitution Reform: Referendum Mode”.
The desires and determinations of the people for meaningful constitution reform, the astuteness and vibrancy of the people in proclaiming their causes, and the challenge of the people to the contemptuous actions of the CRAC have drawn the attraction and input of international democratic bodies such as the Commonwealth Secretariat, the United Nations and the Organisation of American States. The technical, financial and advisory support from these bodies, as well as the professional presentations by regional experts such as constitutional lawyer Dr Lloyd Barnett of Jamaica, should be seen as conditions to revamp the present mechanism towards the constitutional referendum and to set the lessons and standards for the proper execution of the Open University. At this juncture thus, the Grenadian people, the political opposition and the institutional bodies would not be responsible for the failure of the referendum undertaken contrarily, but rather the blame must rest solely with the powers-that-be.
The ‘qualification, competence and experience’ of Dr Alexis cannot be questioned for the Open University, and this must also be seen in terms of the fact that he was the chairman of a similar constitutional venture in St Vincent and The Grenadines in 2009. Although the capacity and resource of CRAC are said to be limited, Dr Alexis performance may be hampered by political manipulations and moreover he is very keen on having ‘blind quick’ replacement of the London-based Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice; review “Grenada Constitution Reform: The CCJ Issue.”
On 17 December 2015, CRAC launched its “Referendum on Grenada Constitution Reform Public Education Programme”, after the first reading in Parliament on 4 December of 6 constitutional Amendment Bills containing about seventy proposals. The ridiculous situation is that this was done without having the installation of a Communication Specialist on the administrative body of CRAC, without the circulation of flyers and pamphlets on pertinent information about the reform project, without the availability of White Papers on the Bills and without presenting a strategic schedule for consultations and education. With the Bills due for second reading and debate about mid-March 2016, it was just on 12 February 2016 that they appeared in the Gazette; the Gazette is the official publication of the Government but it is not commonly known and readily accessible to the general public.
CRAC as the authoritative body for the reform project has not been able to sensitize, mobilize and educate the people on the constitution reform. Sadly also, none of the sectoral representatives on the CRAC has published a Position Paper, tendering contributions as relates to its constituent members; the representations of the CRAC includes the major political parties, the churches, the labour movement, the private business, civil society, the media, the lawyers and the youths. In 2014 a plea was made for these entities to display a proactive and sober role on the CRAC and to assist the people by raising and clarifying issues on the reform, as against being reactive to problems; revisit “Grenada Constitution Reform: National Stakeholders Declare Your Stance!”
Kudos must be given to Attorney-At-Law Ruggles Ferguson for addressing issues on the reform in his “Law Made Simple” Internet radio programme on www.grenadabroadcast.com; Ferguson represents the Bar of the OECS (Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States) on the CRAC. Attorney-At-Law Lawrence Joseph must also be applauded for highlighting issues on the reform in his articles on www.josephlawyers.com. Joseph’s article, “Implications for having Fixed Term Elections”, speaks to the extent to which the constitutional amendment Bills must be articulated and analysed in the public domain before having them debated in the Parliament. Joseph, the consultant to the Government, was once the representative of the Grenada Bar Association on the CRAC, and in a previous article “Petty Politics in the Bar Association”, he shows up the lawyers as being divided on the constitution reform.
The grouping of civil society whose representation on CRAC is Ms Sandra Ferguson (Social Activist) has embarked on an educational process on the constitution reform. Civil Society has been holding serious sessions with its members and interested individuals, with a view to equipping them for taking the issues to the marginalized and ‘unaccounted masses’ in the inner villagers, as well as to the Diaspora and other affiliates. The constitutional amendment Bills are being studied along with the present constitution; understanding the amendments, identifying areas for clarifications and concerns, submitting recommendations and seeking the guidance of professional persons including legal experts.
The UNDP Project Document, “Support to Referendum on Constitution Reform in Grenada,” expects the CRAC, Parliament and Civil Society to undertake participatory, inclusively, and transparently develop well-drafted constitutional amendment bills based on broad-based public input, which must include a comprehensive civic education and voter information campaigns to ensure that the voter population of Grenada participates in the referendum both well informed on the contents of the different referendum bills and on the applicable voting procedures. UNDP conducted two training workshops in January 2016 targeting civil society representatives to undertake civic education campaign; members of the CRAC and the Elections Office attended and were directed and helped on pertinent matters.
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