Non-binding referendums considered

The pros and pitfalls of governance by voter-initiated referendums took centre stage at a public meeting in Bodden Town last week.

During the event at the Webster United Church Hall, Tourism Minister Charles Clifford raised questions as to whether all referenda requested by the public should legally bind the government if they are approved.

‘Or should (a people-initiated referendum) be advisory in nature?’ Mr. Clifford asked the group of about 25 people who attended.

Under proposals by the People’s Progressive Movement government, those who wished to place a question on the election ballot for a vote would have to collect the signatures of 20 per cent of the registered voters in the Cayman Islands. With about 14,000 registered voters that would equal 2,800 signatures.

Once those signatures were verified, the petition would then head to the Legislative Assembly for a vote and drafting of ballot language.

If the item was approved with 51 per cent of the popular vote, it would be considered binding. Less the 51 per cent would only be considered advisory, in other words government would not be forced to take any action.

Civil servant Christian Suckoo used the ongoing controversy over George Town’s Ironwood Forest as an example of where voters might use a referendum question to stop the government from building a road through the forest.

However, Cabinet Secretary Orrett Connor cautioned that people-initiated referendums should be used only in matters of extremely high importance.

‘You really…wouldn’t want to have a situation whereby you’re ruling by referendum,’ Mr. Connor said. ‘The population has reposed a certain amount of trust in electing those officials, so they must be given some…leeway in making decisions.’

Mr. Clifford also commented that a government which ignored the wishes of voters likely ‘wouldn’t last very long.’

Mr. Connor used the example of the upcoming referendum on constitutional modernisation as one which could be considered a non-binding advisory vote. Ministers have said they intend to use the results of the vote to strengthen their negotiating position with the United Kingdom, but there’s no guarantee UK officials will agree with everything Caymanian voters approve.

People for Referendum group President Dennie Warren said his concern was how much input voters would have in the formulation of ballot questions for various referenda.

Mr. Warren said the only reason the public would initiate a referendum is if government wasn’t doing something citizens believed it should.

‘If the disagreement is between the members of the house and the public over what should be done, and you have the members of the house wording (the ballot language)…you can see how that would just end up in a stalemate constantly,’ he said. ‘You need to have a process so that the people have more control over what is actually being put on the ballot.’

Mr. Clifford said he understood Mr. Warren’s sentiment, but doubted the general public could successfully word a referendum question.

‘That’s an impossible task,’ Mr. Clifford said, adding it would be difficult enough to get the Legislative Assembly members to agree on a referendum question.

The Cayman Islands currently allows only referendum questions which are proposed by the government to go on the ballot.