National Address By V. Nazim Burke, Political Leader of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) on The Grenada Constitution Reform Project
Tuesday, 19 August 2014
Sisters and Brothers of Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique, a pleasant good evening to each and every one of you. I take this opportunity to salute our many visitors, friends and citizens residing abroad who shared our recently concluded Carnival Celebrations.
Tonight, I wish to address you first and foremost on the Constitution Reform Project. Over the past few months, a Government appointed Constitution Reform Advisory Committee has been actively engaged in a process of consultations on Constitution Reform, which is expected to lead ultimately to a Referendum on the Grenada Constitution.
This Committee is Chaired by Dr. Francis Alexis, Q.C., a prominent and distinguished Grenadian Constitutional scholar, and is comprised of fourteen (14) members representing various stakeholder groups and organisations in our country.
The project scope and purpose as set out in the Project document is “to conduct public consultations on the Grenada Constitution with the citizens of Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique at home and in the Diaspora. This will provide opportunities for citizens to contribute to the revision of the governing fundamental laws and rights. In addition, it will address major gaps and ambiguities identified by the 1985 and 2006 Constitution Review Commissions of Grenada and incorporate the advancement of fundamental human rights and standards. Subsequently, to present an amended Constitution to citizens for judgement through a Referendum.”
THE CASE FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM
It is important to emphatically state, at the outset, that the National Democratic Congress supports the idea of Constitutional Reform for Grenada. We have now celebrated 40 years of nationhood. By all measure we are a young nation. Yet, sufficient time has elapsed and sufficient drama unfolded for us to take stock of how well our original Constitution has served us, what lessons we can take away from our historical experience to date and how we might improve it for the benefit, protection and pride of our citizens and future generations.
Indeed, as earlier intimated, previous governments recognised this and established two Constitution Commissions (the 1985 and 2006 Commissions) to attend to this need. The reports and recommendations of these Commissions provide a rich source of learning and raw material for this Committee in fulfilling its mandate.
When the National Democratic Congress (NDC) administration came into office in 2008, we decided that it would better advance the process if, rather than creating another Commission, we recruit a Constitutional expert to prepare a working Draft Constitution for public scrutiny and discussion based on the reports and recommendations of the previous Commissions. We approached Professor Simeon McIntosh, Former Dean of the Faculty of Law of the Cave Hill Campus of the UWI, now deceased (RIP), who at no fee to the Government and people of Grenada, prepared a working draft along with explanatory notes which were widely circulated and discussed inside Grenada and recommendations made to Government.
We supported the initiative by the present Government for Constitutional Reform and were pleased that Dr. Francis Alexis, Q.C. was asked to lead the effort. We attached such importance to this initiative, that we offered our former Political Leader and Former Prime Minister, Tillman Thomas to sit as our party’s representative on the Committee. We did all of this in good faith, setting aside all narrow partisan interest in the firm expectation and belief that Dr. Alexis and his team would produce an output that would significantly and substantially advance the cause of constitutional reform in our country.
On July 31st, 2014, the Political Leader of the NDC was presented with a copy of the Report of the Grenada Constitution Reform Advisory Committee which we understand was submitted to the Cabinet of Ministers on or about July 9th 2014.
It is also our understanding that the Cabinet of Ministers have accepted the Report and recommendations contained therein in their entirety and that the Committee is now charged with the responsibility to continue to advise the Cabinet in implementing its decision to hold a Referendum on those recommendations early next year.
SUMMARY OF NDC’s CONCLUSION ON THE REPORT
Having carefully reviewed and considered the contents of the Committee’s Report and its recommendations, we of the NDC feel constrained to state, without equivocation, that in our view, the proposed amendments to the Constitution leave unattended some of the most salient and substantive issues that must be addressed in any constitutional reform and instead focuses, disproportionately, on changes which, while proper, will not materially affect the operation of our constitutional democracy. Moreover, the process adopted and followed by the Committee in reaching its conclusions and in making its recommendations to the Cabinet falls far short of what is, and must be expected of such a Committee.
It is not clear from the Report what operating principles guided the committee in its work. However, the NDC is strongly of the view that the proposed amendments to the Constitution leave unattended some of the most salient and substantive issues that must be addressed in any meaningful reform of the Grenada Constitution. In this regard, we feel compelled to make specific mention of the following six (6) issues:
I. Term Limits for the Office of Prime Minister
First, the issue of Term Limits for the Office of Prime Minister. The Constitution Reform Commission (CRC) of 2006 made the following recommendation in respect of Term Limits for the Office of Prime Minister: That the Constitution be amended to provide that “no person should hold the office of Prime Minister for more than two five-year consecutive terms.”
The NDC takes the position that this issue is of fundamental importance to our democracy and should be put to the people in any Referendum.
II. Fixed Date for Holding General Elections
Second, the powers of the Prime Minster with respect to the calling of General Elections. The Constitution Commission of 2006 concluded and recommended that the Prime Minister should no longer be able to call ” snap elections” and that “a specific date for holding general elections should be set by the Constitution.”
Similarly, the NDC takes the position that this issue is of fundamental importance to our democracy and should be put to the people in any Referendum.
III. Proportional Representation in Parliament
Third, the issue of Proportional Representation (PR) in Parliament. In its Report the Constitution Commission of recommended that the Parliament should comprise of four categories of Members, namely, Constituency Representatives, Proportional Representation Members, Nominated Members or Senators and a local Government Representative. In his Draft Constitution, Professor McIntosh also recommended the first three categories of members.
Since we already have Constituency Representatives and Senators in our constitutional arrangement, the crucial question here is whether the membership of Parliament should be changed so as to introduce proportional representation. The NDC takes the position that this issue is of fundamental importance to our democracy and should be put to the people in any Referendum.
IV. Constitutional Requirement for an Opposition Leader at All Times
Fourth, the need for Grenada to have an Opposition Leader at all times. Again , the Constitution Commission of 2006 suggested an increased role for the Leader of the Opposition and specifically recommended that some important functions should be performed by the Opposition Leader , such as sharing with the Prime Minister appointment of persons to key positions in the public service. Such an increased role can only be guaranteed if , constitutionally, the office of Opposition Leader must be occupied at all times regardless of the outcome of the general elections for Constituency Representatives. This will best be achieved if the Constitution provide for the occupation of that office by a Proportional Representation Member, should one party win all of the seats in the general elections for Constituency Representatives.
The NDC therefore takes the position that this issue is of fundamental importance to our democracy and should be put to the people in any Referendum.
V. A Bicameral or Unicameral Chamber of Parliament
Fifth, the issue of whether the chamber of our Parliament should be bicameral or unicameral. Simply put, this addresses the question whether our Parliament should be comprised of two separate chambers (one for the Elected Representatives (MP’s) and the other for the nominated Representatives (Senators) or whether it should be comprised of a single chamber where both sets of Members meet together to conduct the business of Parliament.
In its Report, the 2006 Constitution Commission recommended that the National Assembly ( Parliament) should be comprised of a single (unicameral) chamber.
The NDC takes the position that this issue is of fundamental importance to our democracy and should be put to the people in any Referendum
VI. Election and Tenure of the Head of State
Sixth, the election and tenure of the Head of State. In its report the Constitution Commission of 1985 recommended, after nation-wide consultations , that whether there is a Governor General or a President as our Head of state, that person should be chosen by an Electoral College of all Parliamentarians together with the Chairpersons of the District Boards and the Council for Carriacou and Petite Martinique.
The NDC takes the position that this issue is of fundamental importance to our democracy and should be put to the people in any Referendum.
The positions we have adopted on these issues are informed not only by the fact that they were all recommended to be put to a Referendum by the previous Constitutions of 1985 and 2006 but also because there are very sound reasons to believe that Grenada’s constitutional democracy may be strengthened by such reforms. Constitutional issues are weighty issues. Time will not allow us to go into the details and justifications for each of these issues in this address. With this in mind, we have developed a more detailed statement setting out in full the basis of our position. This statement is being published for the widest distribution and public scrutiny.
CONCLUSION ON THE “SALIENT AND SUBSTANTIAL ISSUES”
It is important to reiterate, at this juncture, that our desire and expectation to have these issues addressed in the Constitutional Reform Process was made known at every available opportunity, including by the Political Leader at the Launch of the Project and by our Representative on the Committee (Mr. Tillman Thomas, Former Prime Minister) at Committee meetings and public consultations held around the country. Moreover, calls for these issues to be addressed were repeated and reinforced by members of the public in the public consultations, some of which were televised.
For us, it is also important that we expressly and publicly acknowledge that some of the issues addressed in the Committee’s Report are salient and substantial and were quite rightly recommended to the Cabinet as ones to be put the people in any Referendum. Without intending to be exhaustive here, these include Grenada’s accession to the Appellate Jurisdiction of the CCJ; the establishment of an Electoral and Boundaries Commission; the inclusion of the names of Carriacou and Petite Martinique in the name of the State and the refinement of the fundamental rights provisions of the Constitution.
We take the position, however, that if time, effort and resources are going to be spent on the holding of a Referendum on Constitutional Reform then the proposed reforms must address the major gaps and ambiguities identified by the 1985 and 2006 Constitution Review Commissions. This is the stated purpose of the Constitution Reform Project.
In particular, we are of the view that these six issues — not recommended to the Cabinet as ones to be put to the Referendum — are so fundamental to the operation of our Constitutional democracy, that it would be a misallocation of time, effort and resources to go to a Referendum to alter the Constitution without addressing these issues.
ISSUES OF PROCESS
Turning to the issues relating to the process that was followed by the Committee in arriving at its recommendations, we see four (4) fundamental problems.
First of all, as we understood it, a clear undertaking was given to the public by the Chairman of the Committee that after putting together its proposed recommendations, the Committee would hold public consultations on those recommendations before taking them to the Cabinet for its consideration and determination. That was not done. In our view, discussing the proposed recommendations with the stakeholders prior to submitting to the Cabinet would greatly increase the transparency and credibility of the process and significantly enhance the atmosphere of consensus.
Secondly, in addressing the Proposals considered by it, the Committee reported in paragraph 14 of its Report that a vote took place among Committee members on July 3rd and July 7, 2014 to determine which Constitutional Reform Proposals coming before the Committee would be recommended to the Cabinet as one to be put to the public in the Referendum. There is nothing in the Committee’s Report to indicate or suggest that before exercising a vote for and in the name of its constituent organizations, committee members sought and obtained the views of the members and stakeholders of constituent groups which these committee members represented on the Committee.
Without picking on any one individual or organization and simply by way of example, one might pose the question: before voting yes or no on any of these Proposals did the representative of the Grenada Bar Association first present these proposals to the members of the bar, indicating the Committee’s intention to vote on these proposals for recommendation to Cabinet and asking them how they might like him to vote?
Before voting yes or no on any of these recommendations, did the representative of the Trade Union Council first present these Proposals to the Trade Union Council or the individual trade unions, indicating the Committee’s intention to vote on these recommendations and asking them how they might like him to vote?
In our view, such a step was critical to the integrity of the process and ought to have been taken if the desired atmosphere of consensus were to be achieved. The failure of representatives to take that step and the failure of the Committee to require and treat that step as a fundamental one throws the credibility of the voting exercise and the recommendations flowing therefrom into serious doubt.
Thirdly, in our view, the decision of the committee to base its conclusion to recommend or not recommend a Proposal to the Cabinet as one to be put to the Referendum simply on the basis of a majority vote among Committee members and nothing more fails to take into account other important factors and considerations that ought to be taken into account.
Finally, while the Committee was comprised of fourteen (14) persons ( the Chairman and thirteen other persons representing various stakeholders groups), there was not a single occasion, in the voting process on these 25 proposals, when all fourteen members exercised a vote. One proposal ( number 21), had three parts. Thus for all intents and purposes one can say that there were 27 proposals to be considered. Of these 27 proposals, Twelve of the fourteen persons voted on 5 of them. This represented the maximum number of persons who chose to vote on any single proposal. Eleven persons voted on another 5 proposals, Ten persons voted on another 5 proposals; Nine persons voted on 3 of the proposals; only Eight persons voted on 7 of the proposals ; Seven persons ( fifty percent of the members of the committee) voted on 1 of the proposals and only 4 person (twenty-eight percent of the members of the committee) chose to exercise a vote on 1 of the proposals.
No explanation was offered by the Committee in its Report for the apparent failure or refusal of members to participate in the vote on these proposals. It has been reported that certain members of the Committee neither attended meetings on a regular basis nor participated in the deliberations of the Committee. It can hardly be forgotten that those who were called upon to vote were called to do so in their representative capacity.
In our view, too much is at stake. What at issue is here is whether or not to uproot and replace the entrenched provisions of our supreme law, as conceived and articulated by our founding fathers forty years ago. Such a decision calls for the highest level of personal responsibility and commitment on the part of those charged with such responsibility and cannot be coloured by indifference, narrow considerations of historical opportunity or political expediency.
The apparent lack of adequate participation by Committee members in the deliberations of the Committee casts an inescapable shadow of doubt on the completeness of the recommendations submitted to and approved by the Cabinet.
In its Report, the Committee indicated that the projected cost of the Grenada Constitution Project is $2,046,928.00. Ladies and Gentlemen, this project comes at a time when Grenadians are still reeling from the barrage of taxes, duties, charges and fees that have been forced upon them by this Government. Not only have their disposable incomes sharply reduced but they must face higher prices in the supermarkets and in their utility bills. With close to 40 percent living in poverty, and unemployment close to 35 percent, these poor families are called upon by the NNP Administration to make more sacrifices. If we are going to spend millions of dollars on Constitutional Reform at this time, it must be money well spent. We simply cannot afford to do otherwise. We can find no justification for treating with the required Constitutional Reforms in a haphazard manner.
In these circumstances, and having regard to our present economic situation and the attendant financial burden on the resources of the state, the National Democratic Congress will neither support the proposed Constitutional Reforms in its present construct nor the holding of a National Referendum for that purpose.
We have already met with the Chairman of the Constitution Reform Advisory Committee and communicated these concerns to him. In the coming days, we shall formally convey our position to him in writing.
It is regrettable that it has come to this but, as John Roberts noted in relation to the American Constitution, “by ensuring that no one in government has too much power, the Constitution helps protect ordinary [Grenadians] every day against abuse of power by those in authority.”
To that end, the National Democratic Congress will support any and all Constitution Reform initiatives which fully take into account the recommendations of previous Constitution Commissions and adopt a process which affords the best opportunity to capture the views of the widest cross section of Grenadians on this most fundamental issue.
Sisters and Brothers, it would remiss of me to conclude this address without making mention of three other developments which are of great concern to the Grenadian people and which glaringly reflect the continuing arrogance disrespect and insensitivity of the New National Party Administration.
First, the issue of the commercialization of Government estates. It is well known that some time last year, the Government of Grenada decided to commercialize four government estates and established an advisory Committee to advise the Cabinet in relation to this matter.
The decision to lease the Grand Bras estate to a group of Grenadian business persons has been publicly disclosed. At the same time there appears to be a cloud of secrecy around the Mt. Reuil and Belle Vue estates.It has been reported that the Marketing and National Importing Board entered a Bid for the Belle Vue estate alongside a Trinidad individual and that the Trinidad individual was chosen over the MNIB. It has also been reported that Ms. Shadel Nyack–Compton of Belmont estates Limited entered a Bid for the Mt. Reuil estate alongside a Russian Group and that the Russian Group was chosen over Ms. Nyack–Compton. To date the Government has not been transparent and accountable to Grenadian people in relation to the commercialization of the estates. They have not told us what the Committee recommended.
They has not told us why they chose to give these to non- Grenadian persons over Grenadian persons. We call on the Minister of Agriculture to come clean and account to the people on this most important matter. These lands belong to the people of Grenada. They are entitled to know what is going on with these lands.
Second, the Camerhogne Park issue. Sisters and Brothers, it has come to our attention that on July 31st, 2014, the Government of Grenada issues notices to the vendors operating and making their livelihood at Camerhogne Park advising them that of Government’s decision to remove their booths and put n end to vending operations at the park. The notice that was issued gives the vendors one month to vacate and the notices are copied to the Commissioner of Police. According to the reports received the vendors some of whom have been there for as much as 30 years have been told that the booths will be demolished if they do not move as required.
To date, the Government has not told the Grenadian people what plans it has for the Park. Camerhogne park remains the only remaining public space on Grand Anse Beach that is available to the Grenadian people for their recreation and uninterrupted use. It is inconceivable that Government will try to deprive the people of all they have left. In previous announcements, Government officials have assured the public that they have no plans to sell or lease the park to developers.. We therefore call of the Government to come clean with the people and let us know what is happening.
Finally, the Casino Gaming Bill. Last Wednesday, the Government of Grenada brought a Bill to Parliament to introduce Casino Gambling in Grenada. With the Governments fifteen seat position the Bill was passed unopposed. The decision by the Mitchell administration to table this Bill at this time and in this manner reflects the continuing program of deceit by which this government chooses to govern. In his previous pronouncements, Dr. Mitchell assured Grenadians that the issue as to whether Casino Gambling is introduced into law in Grenada is an issue for the people and that before making any decision on the issue he would take it to the people. Needless to say, and to no one’s surprise, that was not done.
The continuing disregard by Dr. Mitchell and the New National Party for the needs, feelings and sentiments of the Grenadian people poses a real threat to our democracy. This uncomfortable situation is facilitated by the deafening silence on the part of some groups and individuals who must understand and appreciate the danger of silence.
In conclusion, therefore, I wish to take this opportunity to call on civil society groups and organisations — the business community, the trade union movement, the NON- governmental community, religious organisations, independent self-employed persons — bus drivers, fishermen farmers, youth and students – to let their voices be heard on these most important national issues.
I thank you and good evening.