As P.J. Patterson closed the curtain on an almost 30-year career in Jamaica’s Parliament, the nation’s longest-serving Prime Minister last night called on the colleagues he leaves behind to act expeditiously in completing the constitutional reform programme he was unable to see through.
Mr. Patterson, who was responding to hours of tributes from Members of Parliament and Senators, told the special gathering at Gordon House that he regretted his failure to substantially advance constitutional reforms, alongside former Prime Minister Edward Seaga who retired as Opposition Leader more than a year ago, to enhance the sovereignty of the nation, reports the Jamaica Gleaner.
“I regret that despite all the efforts, we still have yet to conclude those portions of legislation,” Mr. Patterson said. “But I hope, under the new leadership, the members of both Houses will see to it that we complete the process of decolonisation from the monarchical system of government to set up a republican system and install a president as head of state, whose authority is derived directly from the people of Jamaica.”
The Prime Minister’s desire to see Jamaica sever its remaining constitutional ties to the United Kingdom, greeted by desk-thumping within the Chamber last night, was first raised by Mr. Patterson during the governing People’s National Party’s annual conference in 2003. At that time he said he hoped to complete constitutional reform by March 2005.
Mr. Patterson had declared with certainty that he would not leave representational politics until the Government had made significant progress in coming to an understanding on the issue with the Opposition. However, the idea of becoming a republican state has, since then, gained little traction in the public sphere.
Last night the Prime Minister also pointed to the entrenchment of a Charter of Fundamental Rights in the Constitution and the establishment of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as the nation’s final appellate court as important elements of the reform package that must be completed in short order.
“For one reason or another, too many of us have sought to downplay the significant impact these constitutional changes can have on the psyche of the Jamaican people,” Mr. Patterson said. “These are changes that signify the maturing of a people and symbolise the unity and strength of the Jamaican nation.”
The Charter of Rights, which was one Joint Select Committee meeting away from being returned to the Houses of Parliament for debate, was this month delayed after a late submission from a Christian lawyer group brought the nation to a boil through suggestions that the legislation could potentially lead to the legalisation of homosexual activity.
The CCJ, in its appellate jurisdiction, was sidetracked two years ago after the U.K.-based Privy Council agreed with the Jamaica Labour Party and other groups that the Government had improperly attempted to establish the body in law. The Government subsequently committed itself to working with the Opposition to seek an appropriate process for introducing the appellate body. The Opposition has argued in the past that the court should not be entrenched in the Constitution without a referendum.
Yesterday Mr. Patterson said: “I beseech the new leaders on both sides of the House to commit themselves to having these changes take place before the next general elections are constitutionally due.”
He stressed, however, that he meant by the end of next year, and not necessarily when an election is called.