Constitution talks

A meeting of the minds between the country’s two major political parties on Cayman’s revised constitution still seemed unlikely as last week drew to a close.

Letters sent back and forth between the two sides Friday afternoon indicated they were indeed far from agreement on when such a meeting might take place.

Formal negotiations on the constitution with the United Kingdom are expected to begin a week from today with the first set of talks to be held in the Cayman Islands. It was hoped the two parties could meet to hammer out at least some of the differences in their positions before 29 September.

Leaders of both the ruling People’s Progressive Movement and opposition United Democratic Party have agreed in principle to meet with each other, and have said they would allow those talks to take place in a public forum.

Here’s the rub: the PPM wants a look at what the UDP is proposing first, and the UDP wants to present those proposals at the meeting itself.

‘Now that we are going into the talks with the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), it is absolutely essential that the opposition should say what it proposes,’ Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts said. ‘If nothing happens before and we are not able to narrow the gap within our own, we end up in a set of negotiations that are formal having to barter among ourselves during that time to see that concessions can be made in order to be able to talk to London. We’ll look like idiots.’

Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush said Thursday during a UDP meeting on constitutional reform that Mr. Tibbetts’ statements were disingenuous.

‘They published the first (set of constitutional proposals) and didn’t take our opinion into consideration,’ Mr. Bush said. ‘The PPM didn’t take our document (a questionnaire the UDP printed) and canvass their membership. It’s not important that we give Kurt our views, because he has his own views.’

Mr. Bush said late Thursday that he intended to follow through with his proposal to meet in the Legislative Assembly building on Monday with the PPM members, the Cayman Islands Ministers Association, the Cayman Islands Mission of Seventh Day Adventists, and the Chamber of Commerce for a public discussion on the constitution.

He reiterated that claim in a letter sent to the PPM leadership on Friday.

“I propose that the meetings be open to the public and the media, and be taped,” Mr. Bush wrote. “I propose the same for the 29 (September) meeting with the FCO with the exception that these meetings be broadcast and start at 4.30pm to allow better attendance of the general public.”

It was unclear at press time if any of those groups, which have been invited to participate in talks with London, intended to show up. Late Friday, Mr. Tibbetts sent a response to Mr. Bush’s letter which expressed some incredulity at the meeting offer.

“You (referring to Mr. Bush) cannot seriously be expecting us to convene a meeting of the Legislative Assembly on Monday,” Mr. Tibbetts wrote. “I repeat our many earlier entreaties to you to let us have your position on these issues so that we can sensibly consider them and work toward a compromise.”

Education Minister Alden McLaughlin said he doubted Mr. Bush’s intentions.

‘They (referring to the UDP) want to continue to create a situation where there is divisiveness and concern about the proposals because that will give them, they believe, a platform on which to launch…their political campaign,’ Mr. McLaughlin said.

Mr. Bush characterised this statement as political posturing.

‘The more they repeat something, the more they think people will believe it,’ he said. “We have had discussions and representations that people would like to attend (these meetings) and listen. In the spirit of true transparency and openness, we support their request.”

If constitutional talks with the UK are completed and a draft constitution is produced, the country plans to have a referendum on that document before it is finally approved. The referendum is set for 20 May, the same day as the Cayman Islands general elections.

Both sides have met with the public in numerous forums around the islands. The PPM completed a marathon set of gatherings, which lasted for more than three months in May. The UDP had several public meetings earlier in the year, and completed a second round of meetings just last week.

The PPM said last week that it had already met with three of the four non-governmental groups involved in the constitution talks with the UK. The UDP membership was also in the process of meeting with non-governmental organisations.

Far apart

Even if a meeting time and place is agreed to, the two parties seem to have much to either iron out or ‘agree to disagree’ on.

One of the key proposals made by the People’s Progressive Movement in its plans for constitutional change is a move to full ministerial government. Under that plan, the three appointed members of the Legislative Assembly would have their seats taken away. The chief secretary and financial secretary would become chief officers of new ministries, while the Attorney General would remain in LA but would not be allowed to vote.

The PPM supports this move because it makes the LA a body entirely elected by the people of the country.

However, UDP members have criticised the proposal, which they said would both imperil the neutrality of the civil service and eliminate crucial oversight positions, making the financial secretary and chief secretary essentially pawns of the ministers they work under.

The PPM has said under their plan the Cayman Islands Governor would retain ultimate responsibility for the civil service.

Both sides have argued for the creation of the Cayman Islands’ first bill of rights. However, they disagree over where that bill should be placed in law.

UDP members favour the creation of a separate local law enacting provisions of the bill of rights, since that document would be flexible and could more easily change with the times.

PPM members want the bill of rights enshrined in the constitution precisely because that would make it less susceptible to the whims of the government of the day.

The PPM supports the creation of single member voting districts in Grand Cayman. The UDP does not.

The UDP wants to create a second house of government, a Senate, which consists solely of appointed members. The PPM does not.

UDP members have also opposed the creation of a National Security Council as proposed by the PPM. The PPM wants a council of six members, half of which would represent the appointed arm of government, the other half to be chosen by the elected government. The group would give advice on policing strategies but would not interfere with day-to-day police operations.