December 02, 2007

The Root of the Problem

A merry-go-round on republic
by Rickey Singh
Sunday, December 02, 2007
Source: Jamaica Observer

THERE is a curious political game being played out in a number of Caribbean Community states, including Jamaica. It ensures that while no political party or civil society group advocates retention of the monarchical system of governance, there remains an absurd reluctance for change-over to democratic republican status with a non-executive president as head of state.

Therefore, 45 years after British colonial rule started crumbling in this region, first in Jamaica - which likes to point to a robust quality of its sense of nationalism and patriotic spirit - political divisions help to keep a closed door to republican status with a Jamaican, not a British monarch, as head of state.

Barbados, which often proudly reminds us of having the second oldest parliamentary tradition in the Western Hemisphere, continues to flip-flop on the issue of a national referendum to determine whether it should usher in the republican model with a non-executive head of state.

Back on January 23, 2005, Prime Minister Owen Arthur had boldly announced that Barbados "will be a constitutional republic" by the end of that year. It simply didn't happen, but there have been expedient mutterings about proceeding through the route of a national referendum on the issue.

Having been conveniently pushed aside since then, the file was reopened with last week's announcement by Deputy Prime Minister Mia Mottley that a referendum on republic status would take place simultaneously with the forthcoming general election.

Three of dozen

Among the dozen independent English-speaking countries of our 15-member Caribbean Community, just a paltry three have parted company with a monarchical system that retains as symbolic head of state the still enduring Queen Elizabeth II.

The trio are: Guyana (as a parliamentary democracy with an executive president, like the USA); Trinidad and Tobago; and the Commonwealth of Dominica (both republics with the non-executive presidential model).

The Caricom dozen are among a lingering 16 of the 53 member states of the Commonwealth that still retain the British monarch as their head of state. It is to be wondered how many of their nationals regard this situation as a matter of national pride?

Two years ago, when the People's National Party (PNP) administration of then Prime Minister PJ Patterson was still in its fourth consecutive term, and the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) of Prime Minister Owen Arthur was continuing its third term, there were comparatively muted debates on constitutional changes in favour of republican status.

In Jamaica, debates were partly stimulated by constitutional amendments that had facilitated the historic third-term development when Patterson and his Cabinet colleagues took, for the first time, their oath of allegiance to Jamaica and the "Jamaican people", thereby breaking with the old colonial tradition of an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

That historic constitutional step, however, had also revealed the lack of a political appetite to move the process towards termination of the monarchical system, even if it meant linking the issue with a referendum to coincide with new national elections - as Barbados is now, once more, promising to do.

If fear over future access to the Privy Council as Jamaica's final appellate court was a problem in a referendum route, then Trinidad and Tobago had, as long ago as 1976, shown that the two did not have to be linked, as that twin-island state comfortably changed status, by consensus, as a democratic republic headed by a national as non-executive president.

Two years later, in 1978, Dominica did the same when it uniquely moved out of colonial status into independence as a parliamentary democracy with its first national as head of state and no longer a British monarch.

Playing 'footsy'

Both the PNP and the Jamaica Labour Party (now the governing party with Bruce Golding as prime minister), have been playing footsy on changing from monarchical to republican status.

Last week's announcement by Barbados' Mia Mottley - once again in a high-profile media spotlight - that arrangements would be made for a referendum on republic status to coincide with voting at the coming general election has highlighted the ongoing political merry-go-round on this issue.

A lot of watchers of Caribbean political developments must be baffled that in this seventh year of the first decade of the 21st century, perceived sophisticated multi-party parliamentary democracies in Caricom, such as Barbados and Jamaica, really need to have a referendum on whether to shake off the monarchical system of governance in favour of a parliamentary democracy with nationals as head of state.

They seem afraid, though it is not clear of what, particularly in Barbados, which has already taken the crucial decision to part company with the Privy Council in London. It is a position on which today's ruling JLP may want to delay for as long as possible.

In Barbados, going very softly on the republic issue could be a misjudgement of the mood of the Barbadian people by the two traditional contenders for state power - the Barbados Labour Party and the Democratic Labour Party.

After all, the last Constitutional Review Commission had reported back in 1998 that it received no written submissions or calls during public hearings against a constitutional change in favour of republican status.

The overall scenario, therefore, across the independent member states of Caricom, as we head towards the end of 2007, is that apart from three, all remain with a British monarch as their symbolic head of state.

Further, ALL except Barbados and Guyana are yet to show ANY real interest to sever ties with the Privy Council and access the Caribbean Court of Justice as their final appellate institution.

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