For the first time since the constitutional referendum was announced, government ministers have publicly admitted that the planned vote date may have to be pushed back.
‘If it is felt by the majority of people that a referendum in May is too early, the government is prepared to reconsider that,’ Education Minister Alden McLaughlin told a group of about 65 people gathered at the Savannah United Church Hall Monday night.
Several Caymanian residents told ministers and members of the Constitutional Review Secretariat that they thought there simply wasn’t enough time to make an informed choice by May.
‘If we as electors are being asked over the next three months to absorb what is in the position document, seek advice, formulate our positions on it, deliver that to (government) from which they then prepare what will be a draft document for us to digest again and then vote on a position…I think it’s a huge exercise,’ resident Mark Scotland said.
Others were uncertain about what they would be voting on in the referendum, since the government would still have to negotiate its constitutional reform plans with the United Kingdom and then bring the final draft back to the Cayman Islands Legislative Assembly for debate before the document is approved.
‘I would rather say yea or nay to the finished product,’ said retired civil servant Andrea Bryan. ‘Is it possible there could be a referendum again (after talks with the UK)?’
Ministers said they had not contemplated that possibility largely because it would be impractical.
Mr. McLaughlin asked the crowd for advice on when the referendum should be held, if the proposed May date was pushed back. None was offered by meeting attendees, at least not publicly.
‘We need some indication — as to how much more time we would need,’ Mr. McLaughlin said. ‘What the government is not prepared to do is to simply say it’s an open-ended process. If it happens a year from now, OK.’
‘That’s the attitude that’s been adopted in the past, and it’s been seven years. You have to reach finality at some point.’
Mr. McLaughlin said the government was committed to holding a public vote on constitutional reform, and blamed the opposition United Democratic party for trying to derail the referendum process.
‘It will be an absolute travesty if the electorate of this country is deprived of the opportunity to participate in the decision-making about what the constitution should look like because there never is a referendum,’ he said. ‘If we never get to the referendum process because the nay-sayers successfully derail this process, in my lifetime, we’ll never ever have this opportunity again.’
Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush denied that his party simply opposed the holding of a referendum on these constitutional changes, although he has urged voters to reject the government’s plans when they go to the polls.
‘I don’t believe that our system of governance…is one where we can run the country by referendum,’ Mr. Bush said. ‘But since the government is going that route, we’re not going to object to (the holding of) the referendum. We object to the timeframe.’
Mr. McLaughlin said Monday night that the government’s proposals aren’t necessarily all that different from the draft constitution the United Democratic Party government negotiated in 2002 and 2003. He said the two major differences appeared to be that the UDP opposed single-member voting districts, and supported the creation of a second legislative body like a senate.
The People’s Progressive Movement government supports single-member districts, which means one person would be elected to represent a small, specifically defined area within Grand Cayman’s current voting districts.
Single-member districts would not be used on the Sister Islands under the PPM plan. The government also opposes the formation of a senate.
Mr. Bush said his party’s positions are being misrepresented by government ministers during public meetings on the constitution.
‘It’s grossly unfair what’s going on,’ he said.
Mr. McLaughlin said copies of a Legislative Assembly Hansard from 2004 in which Mr. Bush explained his government’s positions on constitutional reform were being distributed at the meetings, and that the government was quoting directly from that Hansard at the meetings.
He said any opposition party member is free to attend, but stressed that the position being put forward at those meetings is the current government’s plan. He suggested Mr. Bush and the UDP hold their own public meetings to discuss plans for constitutional reform.
Mr. Bush said the UDP intends to release a revision of its previous constitutional modernisation proposals at the end of this month.