Constitutional referendum: May 2008

It appears the long-awaited public vote on Cayman’s new constitution will happen in May.

Speaking before the UK’s Foreign Affairs Committee in London Monday, Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts reviewed the country’s plans for the upcoming referendum.

‘We intend to begin public consultation very early next year and go through a referendum perhaps by May (2008), with a view to beginning negotiations very shortly after that,’ Mr. Tibbetts said.

Cayman’s Constitutional Review Secretariat Director Suzanne Bothwell confirmed Mr. Tibbetts’ timeline in an e-mail to the Caymanian Compass.

‘The government has now come to an agreed month for the referendum — namely May 2008,’ Ms Bothwell wrote.

Officials with the secretariat have not yet released their proposal for what specific changes they want to make in the country’s constitution. Ms Bothwell said that document would be published in a matter of weeks.

The comments from Mr. Tibbetts and Ms Bothwell took those who’ve been pushing for a referendum on Cayman’s constitution by surprise.

‘I’m disappointed that we have to hear it third-hand, when the question has been asked here many times about a timetable (for constitutional modernisation),’ said Billy Adam, a member of the group People for Referendum.

A printed copy of the Strategic Policy Statement delivered by Mr. Tibbetts in the Legislative Assembly on Friday, 30 November shows he did speak about the May referendum date. Those comments came on page 34 of the 36 page speech.

Government ministers have previously said the draft plan would be close to what they believe Cayman’s new constitution should look like. However, they have stressed the importance of public involvement in developing the final plan.

Mr. Tibbetts revealed some of the general points Cayman will discuss with the UK in its negotiations on the constitution during his testimony before the Foreign Affairs Committee.

‘The elected government should have more of a say,’ Mr. Tibbetts said. ‘(Currently) Governor chairs Cabinet and governor decides on Cabinet agendas and we think that time has evolved to the point where that really should not be the case.’

Mr. Tibbetts also told committee members that elected ministers in Cayman wanted to at least have an advisory role in the selection of governors.

‘Because we have to live with (the governor) every day while he’s there, we believe it’s only fair that — while we certainly don’t expect to get on the committee to appoint — but if we could have wind of who’s being consulted and some type of biography so that we could have a look and maybe pass on our opinion.

‘We do respect the fact that as long as we wish to receive that constitutional status of a British Overseas Territory that it’s only fair to expect that the UK government will wish to have some hand. But we’re going to seek a certain level of autonomy to make sure that the democratic process is truly democratic.’

If the public consultation process on constitutional modernisation is to begin in January, it would give voters about four months to review the government’s proposal and come to a decision.

‘The phase of discussion is going to be limited; the most it can be now is four months. That is not sufficient time if we are going to change from carbon-copy parliamentary democracy,’ Mr. Adam said.

‘I’m not interested in the new power the politicians want, I want to find out what new powers the people will have.’

A May date for the referendum would mean voters would have to register by 1 January to be eligible to cast their ballots, according to Elections Supervisor Kearney Gomez.

Mr. Tibbetts was also questioned by members of the UK Foreign Affairs Committee about who is given the eligibility to vote in the Cayman Islands. One member asked whether ‘belongers’ were given the vote franchise. Belonger status is a legal classification in British Overseas Territories referring to those who have close ties to a specific territory.

‘Once they become Caymanian they certainly do,’ Mr. Tibbetts answered.

‘The belongers?’ the committee member questioned.

‘My belongers are Caymanian,’ Mr. Tibbetts said.