LESSONS FROM SAINT VINCENT FOR JAMAICA
by CLAUDE ROBINSON
Source: Jamaica Observer
Published: Sunday, November 29, 2009
Queen Elizabeth II arrived in Trinidad and Tobago last Thursday for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to what must be good news for the monarchy: The people of St Vincent and the Grenadines had voted decisively in a referendum to retain her as their Queen and head of state.
The "No" vote of 55.64 per cent was a huge rebuff for Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves who may have timed the vote to coincide with the Queen's presence in the Caribbean, hoping that an affirmative "Yes" would have been a triumphal way to say goodbye to a powerful symbol of British colonial rule.
While the referendum results are of primary interest to the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines, it is also significant for other regional countries, especially Jamaica where political administrations have wrestled with the same constitutional question the Vincentians have just settled.
A yes vote would have allowed St Vincent and the Grenadines to join Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica and Guyana as the only Caribbean Community (Caricom) countries to sever constitutional ties with Buckingham Palace and select their head of state from among their own people.
Guyana has an executive president, which makes Bharrat Jagdeo head of state and head of government; while Dominica and Trinidad and Tobago have 'ceremonial' presidents with effective power remaining in the hands of the prime minister.
Since the 1970s Jamaica has been engaged in a tortuous constitutional reform process, including breaking ties with the Queen as head of state and establishing a republic similar to Trinidad's. However, the issue has never been put to the people as successive administrations remain spooked by the 1961 referendum against West Indian federation promoted by Norman Manley and the People's National Party (PNP) and opposed by Alexander Bustamante and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).
One of the questions arising from last Wednesday's referendum result is the extent to which Caribbean people wish to retain links to British symbols. Or was it simply a statement on the stewardship of Prime Minister Gonsalves?
The referendum would have replaced the St Vincent constitution in force since independence in 1979. The "No" vote of 55.64 per cent was well short of the required two-thirds threshold.
How could Prime Minister Gonsalves have got it so wrong? What happened since the last general election in 2005 in which he and his Unity Labour Party (ULP) got 55.26 per cent of the vote and 12 of the 15 seats in Parliament?
In the campaign leading up to the vote, the prime minister stressed that although he had nothing personally against Queen Elizabeth II, it was time for Saint Vincent to stop having a monarch as its head of state: "I find it a bit of a Nancy story that the Queen of England can really be the Queen of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines."
According to some St Vincent watchers, the referendum result may be a reflection of some unease among voters for the prime minister's reputed affinity towards executive presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
However, that view was contradicted by the campaign rhetoric in which Mr Gonsalves asserted that the proposed constitution for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines would not have created an executive president because that would give the office holder too much power in the small country, he said in an interview reported in the Trinidad Express.
On the other hand, the Opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) advocated for a "No" vote on the proposals, disputing Mr Gonsalves' assertion that a "Yes" would reduce the power of the prime minister, increase the power of the Opposition and strengthen the country's democracy.
Lessons for Mr Golding
What lessons can Prime Minister Bruce Golding draw from the outcome in St Vincent as he contemplates the idea of a referendum to determine whether Jamaica should adopt the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as the country's final court of appeal, replacing the British Privy Council?
As it stands, Jamaica can adopt the CCJ as its final court of appeal without a referendum, according to expert opinion. However, in order to entrench the court in the Jamaican constitution the people of Jamaica must agree in a referendum. The argument is that because the Privy Council is now entrenched in the constitution, any court that replaces it would also have to be entrenched.
While I support the CCJ as our final appeal court, I also believe that this matter must be put to a referendum, given divided opinion on the issue.
These divisions may have been sharpened last week by the Privy Council ruling in favour of Mr Ezroy Millwood and the National Transportation Cooperative Society. Some will view the judgement as justice, finally, for the beleaguered franchise, while others may regard it as an imposition by 'foreign' judges that will cost taxpayers some $1.85 billion.
Of course, one way of securing a predicted outcome in a referendum is where the two parties - governing and opposition - agree on the matter to be decided and neither would seek to take advantage of the other. But even here the outcome may not be assured.
Speaking with Beverley Manley on Hot 102 the day after the losing the vote in St Vincent, Mr Gonsalves indicated that the two parties had earlier agreed to support the "Yes" vote. His clear implication was that the opposition had backtracked.
News out of St Vincent offered an explanation for the change of heart: NDP leader Arnhim Eustace opined that the two sides had failed to reach an agreement on a number of fundamental issues, including the Integrity Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the ombudsman, and the Electoral and Boundaries Commission.
In other words, the opposition appeared to have tied its support for a "Yes" vote to other issues of human rights and accountability, which it considered important. Or they may have smelled that the government was politically vulnerable.
Thus, another lesson is that a referendum is not always about the specific item on the ballot paper and can easily become a statement on the performance of the government. Simply put, referenda are fraught with political danger.
In the context of the current economic challenges faced by all governments in the region, voters are concerned about the ability of incumbents to increase opportunity, improve living standards and maintain social peace. Opposition parties are sniffing power.
Finally, it may also be that a majority of voters want to retain their connection and find no problem with an anachronism of a governor general as the Queen's representative in Jamaica instead of being a symbol of the Jamaican people.
It is also significant that the vote came as the 53-member grouping of Britain and its former colonies spread across the globe was meeting in Port of Spain trying to find relevance in the new balance of power in the world.
In these circumstances, Mr Golding is unlikely to test the waters about entrenching the CCJ any time soon. On the larger issue of changing the Jamaican constitution to have a president as the Jamaican head of state, we can, in the famous words of former prime minister PJ Patterson, 'forget it'.