Constitution issues aired

In a historic live-televised and radio broadcast event, Cayman’s top political leaders were given equal time to give their views on the proposed changes to the constitution.

constitution

Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush, left, Chamber of Commerce CEO Wil Pineau, seated right, moderates the Constitutional Forum held last week. Photo: Alan Markoff

A five-person panel selected by the Chamber asked Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts and Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush the same 15 questions concerning the constitution issues. Each man had two minutes to respond.

Chamber of Commerce CEO Wil Pineau acted as moderator in the debate-style forum.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Bush noted that the UK initiated the constitution modernisation process back in 1999 with the release of the White Paper.

‘It should be noted that the call was for modernisation, not advancement or reform of the constitution,’ he said. ‘The desire for a modernised constitution should be secondary to the desire to maintaining a strong and stable economy and by extension a strong and stable society.’

Mr. Bush responded first to the question concerning his party’s reasons for either supporting or not supporting modernising the constitution at this time.

‘The operative part of the question is, ‘at this time’,’ Mr. Bush responded. ‘It is correct that the constitution modernisation process is required by the UK, but no time frame was mandated. Accordingly, the decision as to the haste of bringing about change is governed by local decision makers not the UK.’

Mr. Bush conceded the 1972 constitution does need ‘some modernisation in the form of nomenclature and gender references.

‘But the substance of the constitution has served us well, and continues to serve us well,’ he said. ‘In reality, 36 years is not a long period for a constitutional document.’

Mr. Bush said he did not support the changes proposed by the PPM because he believes they are outside the ambit of modernisation and in the realm of serious constitutional advancement

‘The Government has not made a case, as yet, as to why they desire such advancement.’

Mr. Tibbetts said the proposed changes to the constitution were just to make the administration to the Cayman Islands more democratic, more accountable and more efficient. He stressed that the type of changes sought by the PPM to the constitution were consistent with what was happening elsewhere.

‘Modernisation does not mean independence,’ he said. ‘Most of the other [British] Overseas Territories have completed their constitution modernisation process and we should not lag behind.’

Asked for the his party’s stance on Cayman’s current Westminster form of government, Mr. Tibbetts said the PPM did not support adopting another form of government, particularly with regard to making it bicameral with the addition of a senate.

‘In a country of this size, a senate, we believe, is unnecessary.’

Mr. Bush said a senate would enhance the Westminster style of government in Cayman by involving sectors of the populace that would not otherwise be involved, thus improving the quality of decisions.

‘In reality, the election process does not always produce the most qualified persons to be charged with making the most important decision for the country,’ he said.

Mr. Bush said another amendment to the Westminster style of government supported by the UDP concerned the constitution of the Public Accounts Committee.

‘As the watchdog of government, this committee should be chaired by a member of the opposition and the composition should be representative of the composition of the Legislative Assembly,’ he said. ‘The PAC is currently chaired by a member of the government’s backbench. This is unhealthy and contradicts the practice in the Commonwealth.’

Mr. Tibbetts said he agreed in principle with the suggestion that a member of the opposition chair the PAC. But speaking of the current situation, he said the PAC just had to get to the point where it was up to date, so that the chairman of the PAC wasn’t reviewing an auditor general’s report about a government which the chair was a part.

The two men were later asked if their party supported holding a second referendum following constitution negotiations with the UK.

The PPM’s stated position has been that it will not hold a second referendum, but Mr. Tibbetts left the door open for the possibility.

‘If the results after negotiations are significantly different that what is in the referendum, then we’ll have to think that through,’ he said. ‘It’s a question of whether it’s necessary or not.’

Mr. Bush said a referendum held before there is a draft constitution that has the approval of the UK is ‘a fundamental waste of time and tax payers’ money.

‘It is only at the juncture, after the negotiated constitution has been returned to the Cayman Islands, that a referendum should be embarked upon.’

Mr. Bush warned that having a referendum on specific proposals without knowing the UK’s response first, could, if the UK accepted them, ultimately require independence. He reminded the audience that Foreign and Commonwealth Undersecretary of State Meg Munn had told the Chamber of Commerce last December the British Government had limits to the amount of autonomy it would concede without Cayman taking the path of independence.

‘This is not scaremongering,’ Mr. Bush said. ‘This is the reality of the situation we face, and the reason we call for a cautious approach to these negotiations.’

Mr. Bush reiterated that the UDP would prefer to see the referendum take place next May during the general elections, which would not only give more time for the issues to be widely discussed, but would also save the costs associated with having a referendum separately. He noted the government-led constitutional modernisation process had already cost $1.7 million in a time of declining revenues.

Ironically, Mr. Bush and many of the attendees in the audience were unaware Mr. Tibbetts had announced earlier that morning at the cabinet press briefing the referendum would be held in late July of this year.

Responses to some of the more controversial aspects of the constitution revealed little in the way of surprises.

However, when speaking about the bill of rights in the constitution, Mr. Tibbetts conceded there would need to be ‘a period of education and understanding necessary’ once Cayman gets a bill of rights.

Although the question in the forum on the bill of rights asked if it should be incorporated in the constitution, the PPM has steadfastly maintained the UK insists that it is. To get confirmation of that fact, Mr. Tibbetts wrote to Mrs. Munn earlier in the year asking her to clarify the issue. She did, stating the bill or rights would indeed have to be included.

However, in responding to the question at the forum, Mr. Bush said the issue should be one that is ‘discussed around the table by all of us rather than a written question to Mrs. Munn without discussion.’

With regard to single member constituencies, Mr. Tibbetts said it was one of the fundamental principles of democracy. He refuted claims by the opposition – which now opposes single member constituencies after supporting them at one time – that most Caymanians don’t support the proposal either.

‘There appears to be wide-spread support for one person, one vote in Grand Cayman,’ he said.

In winding up, Mr. Tibbetts said people needed to understand that constitutional modernisation should be looked at as a bipartisan issue.

‘It has nothing to do with party politics,’ he said. ‘It has nothing to do with the PPM, the UDP, Mr. Truman [Bodden] or anyone else for that matter. It has to do with the people of this country.

‘As you heard today, there are some differences [between party views] but I don’t believe those differences are insurmountable.’

Mr. Bush said the UDP had found ‘far and wide’ the people don’t support what the government is proposing.

He urged voters not to be rushed into the process.

‘Take the time and do it, whether it’s two years, three years or four years. Young people, listen to what I tell you. I’ve been here longer than [Mr. Tibbetts].’

Mr. Bush ended by calling on the two parties to stop fighting.

‘Let us work together for change,’ he said, adding that if the PPM stopped the fighting, he would stop, too.

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