In an about face from its previous position, the People’s Progressive Movement government has cancelled plans for a referendum on constitutional modernisation this summer, opting to hold the vote at the same time as the Cayman Islands General Elections, scheduled for May 2009.
‘The indications are that under these circumstances voter turnout at the (summer) referendum is likely to be low,’ Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts said during a Friday press briefing. ‘If we went ahead now with the referendum and there was a low turnout, the referendum result would make little or no impression in London.’
The PPM has long argued that holding a vote before a draft constitution is negotiated with the United Kingdom would give Caymanians more of a say in shaping the agreement, since a strong mandate would have an influence on UK negotiators.
However, Mr. Tibbetts said it became clear in recent months that such a mandate would not materialise if the vote was held this summer.
‘I am not happy that this change of plan has become necessary, but I am sure it is now the best way forward,’ he said.
‘This is a win for the Cayman Islands and I believe it is the right thing,’ Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush said.
The reversal represents a change in government’s constitutional negotiation strategy and moves much closer to the one Mr. Bush and his United Democratic Party supported.
Instead of holding a summer referendum and then moving onto talks with the UK, the government now expects to begin negotiations with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office around September with an eye toward completing those discussions in December or January.
Once a draft constitution is produced, the government plans to bring that draft back to voters for review and hold the referendum on 20 May, 2009, to coincide with the General Elections.
It is unlikely that voters will be able to affect many changes on the draft document once talks with the UK are completed.
‘As long as we wish to retain the constitutional relationship we have with London, we have to accept that we may not get every single thing that we desire,’ Mr. Tibbetts said. ‘(Voters) will not necessarily agree with everything, but they will understand.’
The constitutional modernisation vote in May 2009 is expected to be a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ ballot. The proposed ballot previously printed by the Elections Office will be scrapped.
The possibility of holding the constitutional referendum at the same time as the general election was one PPM members had repeatedly said they wanted to avoid because they were concerned the vote would become a referendum on the PPM government, instead of focusing on constitutional change.
‘Events and the opposition have conspired to make (separating the votes) impossible,’ Education Minister Alden McLaughlin said. ‘We’ve thought about whether by changing the programme…whether it could be possible to hold the referendum earlier (in 2009), but if you look at the dates it doesn’t make sense.
‘It is going to be interesting to see how the opposition responds to this, because we have met virtually every one of their objections to the process in this announcement,’ Mr. McLaughlin said. ‘They will have to be somewhat more creative in finding reasons to oppose the process now.’
A statement issued Friday by the UDP read: ‘Today’s announcement of a delay and admission of the government that current public sentiment would not favour a majority vote in favour of their proposals on the referendum, is fully agreed to by the opposition and a great tribute to the sound common sense and intelligence of the Caymanian people.’
PPM ministers actually did not state that they believed their proposals would have been defeated, rather ministers said turnout would not have been high enough to consider any vote a ‘mandate,’ whether it was successful or not.
‘The UDP thinks that democracy ends when voters mark their ballots in a general election,’ Mr. Tibbetts said.
Mr. Tibbetts said members of the opposition would be included in the constitutional negotiation team, along with representatives from non-governmental entities.
‘We are hopeful that (the opposition) will now properly engage in the process and carry out their duty as members of the opposition,’ he said.
The UDP statement said the opposition party had made numerous requests for financial assistance to get its constitutional message out, but to date has received nothing from the government.
‘Nevertheless, we will continue and are determined to guard this country against the wishes and desires of the power hungry PPM administration,’ the statement read.
The PPM introduced its first discussion paper on the revised constitution in January and then updated that paper in May based on a number of public meetings, which were held throughout the islands.
Mr. Tibbetts said that process has given government some information regarding what voters would like to see in a constitution and will inform discussions with the UK.
‘I have no doubt that we were right to start with the public consultation,’ Mr. Tibbetts said. ‘This has been very worthwhile, and the expense fully justified.’
Budget records show the government will spend more than $1.7 million for the Constitutional Review Secretariat’s work through the entire constitutional review process.