Voters wary of ‘constitutional constipation’

There were signs at a public meeting in Lower Valley Monday night that voters in the Cayman Islands don’t want this latest attempt at constitutional modernization to collapse.

About 40 people attended the meeting – the second for the district of Bodden Town, including Bodden Town MLA’s Osbourne Bodden, Charles Clifford and Anthony Eden.

Cabinet Minister Alden McLaughlin again emphasised that the PPM government is prepared to push back the date of the referendum from the earlier nominated date of May, but he said the process cannot be opened ended.

‘The process has been ongoing here in Cayman for seven years. Most of this ground has been covered before. We believe it is high-time the country comes to some finality about its constitution. We don’t want to rush the process … but at the same time we don’t want to drag the process out unnecessarily,’ he said.

The Government believes the process should be wrapped up before the next election in 2009, he said.

One attendee, Walsham Connolly drew loud applause when he said it is time to get on with the referendum. ‘I think we’re long overdue and it’s not as if we didn’t expect this. We knew we would reach this stage where a decision would need to be taken and action taken,’ he said. ‘We should proceed on schedule.’

But another attendee, Emile Levy, said he, for one, needed more time to consider the proposals – at least six more months.

Dave Martins said the islands would be facing ‘constitutional constipation’ if it stretched the process out any further.

Mr. McLaughlin said there was only one other overseas territory not to have finished the constitutional modernization process, and if the Cayman Islands didn’t get the job done now, it risked developing constitutional fatigue. ‘We have got to make a decision at some point and move on. If smaller nations than ourselves can make that decision I don’t see why we can’t. The world is moving on. Constitutions can be amended.’

Lindbergh Eden, of Savannah, said it would reflect poorly on the Cayman Islands if the constitutional modernization process again failed. He wanted to know what could be done to overcome scare tactics that might derail the process.

‘[They are saying we are headed] headlong for independence; that there will be total self-government … what can we do about that? Some people are swallowing it hook, line and sinker.’

Cabinet Minister Charles Clifford said there would be some whose sole objective was to derail the process. ‘It’s our responsibility to respond to them and to make sure we get our message out; that we try to educate the populous as best we can,’ he said.

But Mr. Levy said it is time to get beyond the political bickering that is tainting the process. ‘What we decide to do will affect all of us … This very important matter is beyond PPM and it is beyond UDP. What we need to do is come together as one Cayman people for the betterment of all of us and our future.’

One point of contention at Monday’s meeting was whether voters should have a straight up or down vote on the constitution, or whether voters should be able to vote on specific constitutional proposals. Some voiced concern that an up or down vote could cause voters to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

But voting on particular issues would raise its own problems, Mr. McLaughlin said, like having to define which issues were important to whom. He emphasised that voters are being asked to give the government a mandate to negotiate, within defined parameters, the constitution with the UK, rather than to vote on a specific constitutional document.

But Mark Scotland said voters should be given more credit to be able to wade through the issues.

Billy Adam of the People for Referendum group asked the Government to consider holding a referendum after negotiations are concluded with the UK and the Legislative Assembly has debated the document.

‘The devil is in the details,’ he said. ‘That’s when we know exactly what we are getting.

‘We might tell you to get a four wheel car and you could come back from England with a three-wheel bicycle … have you considered it.’

Mr. McLaughlin pointed out that the draft constitution that was negotiated with the UK in 2002 and 2003 had come back as 81 pages of very fine print. While a ‘constitutional animal’ like Mr. Adam would surely read such a document line by line, most people had never read that document and never would, Mr. McLaughlin said.

Voting on the text of a constitution would also raise the difficult question of whether voters should then be asked to vote on the constitutional text line by line, proposal by proposal, or as a single document.

Mr. Scotland wanted to know whether there was a chance the document that materialised after negotiations with the UK could be vastly different from the proposals the PPM have outlined.

‘No,’ said Mr. McLaughlin. ‘If we did that it would be a serious breach of trust.’ But he said everyone had to be clear that the UK might not accept some of the things the Cayman Islands were asking for – particularly judicial review of the Governors’ decisions.

While there are certain proposals Cayman has outlined that might not be accepted, the Government would not cede to new demands from the UK that have not been approved by voters in Cayman, Mr. McLaughlin continued.

‘It may well be that we have to walk away from the table saying ‘we have no mandate for that’. But ultimately … it is for the UK to decide on these key issues because we don’t have the ability to issue our own constitution.’

The next district meeting is scheduled to take place Thursday at the North Side Seventh Day Adventists Church Hall at 8pm.

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