Referendum vote: yes or no

The referendum planned for May on the Cayman Islands’ revised constitution will present voters a straight approve or reject option.

‘The question will be simple,’ said Education Minister Alden McLaughlin, speaking to a crowd of about 80 people at Boatswain’s Beach Thursday night. ‘It’ll be a yes or no question; whether you support in broad terms what is proposed or not.

‘We’ve concluded, and the advice is, that’s the only way to do it,’ he said.

Exactly how the referendum would occur has been one of the lingering questions about the constitutional review process. Indeed, some at Thursday night’s public meeting wondered how voters would keep track of every single issue involved in constitutional change.

‘If you look at the 2003 draft constitution, it’s got 79 pages of important information,’ said West Bay resident Loxley Banks. ‘How are we going to digest all that and make a decision come referendum time?’

Mr. McLaughlin admitted that asking voters to weigh in on the entire list of topics addressed in the government’s proposal would not be realistic.

‘Should we ask them to vote on the big issues? Then, who decides what the big issues are?’

However, Mr. McLaughlin stressed that the current proposal by government could change quite a bit before May.

Aside from the 17 public meetings planned to garner input, Mr. McLaughlin said the government would also meet with influential community groups such as the Lions Club and the Chamber of Commerce to seek their advice. He said it was even possible that a survey would be conducted.

After all the comments are gathered, a new constitutional proposal will be produced for voters to review. That plan will be the subject of the May referendum.

Eligible voters must register by 29 February to participate.

Many in the community have expressed doubts about whether the government has given voters enough time to educate themselves about the proposal, comment on it, and then consider a revised plan ahead of the vote in May. Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush has accused the People’s Progressive Movement party of trying to rush the process and ram through a constitution before the general elections in May 2009.

In a radio and television address last week, Mr. Bush urged people to vote against the PPM’s proposals for constitutional reform.

Mr. McLaughlin said the decision to take a straight yes or no vote on the referendum could be viewed as a gamble by the current government.

‘There is significant political risk in that for us, and we understand that,’ Mr. McLaughlin said. ‘But it’s a risk that we’re prepared to take.

‘If, at the end of the day, we read it wrong and we conclude wrongly that the temperature of the water is what it is not, then the country will have said to us ‘no, that’s not a constitution we want,” he said. ‘While some will say that that is a failure on our part, it would also be a huge signal about the democracy that we have…because we wouldn’t be able to go ahead and the process would have to be restarted probably after the next (May 2009) election.’

The government hopes to build a strong consensus on its constitutional reform plan and establish parameters within which negotiations with the United Kingdom will take place. Mr. McLaughlin cautioned that voters shouldn’t expect every proposal they support to come back in the draft constitution following those negotiations.

‘You can give us a mandate to go do anything, but ultimately the UK has to agree,’ he told the West Bay audience. ‘You might not get all of (what’s proposed).’

There are some issues in constitutional reform that the UK is likely to expect from Cayman’s proposal. One is a bill of rights. Another is a clarification of ‘belonger’ status, in other words, who is allowed to vote and run for public office in Cayman.

Both topics have been the subject of some controversy in constitutional discussion so far, and Thursday night’s meeting was no exception.

Several speakers expressed displeasure with a government plan that would allow people who are not born in Cayman, but who obtain status, and live here 20 out of 25 years after getting that status to stand for election.

‘Eventually, the country could be governed, probably, by non-Caymanians,’ said West Bay resident Daphne Orrett.

Some members of the audience were also leery about what a bill of rights might contain, and whether the UK would force Cayman to accept same sex marriages or require some kind of separation of church and state in teachings at public and private schools.

Constitutional Secretariat Director Suzanne Bothwell urged voters to provide input on how they believe government should ‘Caymanise’ the bill of rights.