It’s been hailed as historic and it helped narrow their differences, but at the end of last Thursday’s constitutional summit at Bodden Town, government and opposition legislators remained split over whether the Cayman Islands should demand more political responsibility from the United Kingdom.
At the end of the marathon constitutional talks, there was broad agreement on 15 of the Government’s 25 constitutional reform proposals, partial agreement on four issues and division on six.
People’s Progressive Movement Government leaders expressed surprise that the two camps had been able to find so much common ground during the 10-hour session, but they acknowledged the points of disagreement are fundamental ones that go to the heart of their constitutional modernisation plans.
‘[They are] the issues that govern the relationship between the Cayman Islands Government and the United Kingdom,’ said Cabinet Minister Alden McLaughlin following the talks Friday.
‘The stresses and strains that we are seeing now are the best evidence yet that the relationship needs major redefinition. If we don’t get that right, the rest of it is for naught.”
Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush described the Government’s proposals as a power grab for the PPM and one that would put the Cayman Islands on the path to independence from the United Kingdom – an outcome that all parties agreed they did not want to see.
Key points the camps could not resolve included a proposal to remove official representatives from the Legislative Assembly and Cabinet; an opposition proposal to create a senate appointed by legislators; a government proposal to create a national security council that would give elected representatives more oversight of policing matters; and the introduction of single member constituencies and a one-man one-vote electoral system.
There was also division on whether any proposed bill should be enshrined in a constitution or whether, as the opposition and some NGO’s advocated, it should be introduced as a separate piece of domestic legislation.
On the issues they could not agree on, Mr. Tibbetts proposed that the camps ‘just put it on the table, both sides will say what they think and we will just go from there.’
Four Government ministers; four opposition MLA’s; representatives of the Cayman Minister’s Association; the Cayman Islands Mission of Seventh Day Adventists; the Chamber of Commerce; and the Human Rights Committee are in attendance for the talks, which will run through Thursday behind closed doors at the Ritz Carlton.
Power rebalances or power grab
During Thursday’s talks, Mr. McLaughlin said wresting some powers away from the Governor and trusting them to elected representative’s lies at the core of what his administration is trying to achieve.
‘The UK has the power to tell the elected representatives of the people of this country what laws to pass and what laws not to pass,’ Mr. McLaughlin noted.
He said Cayman has to limit London’s ability to dictate on matters the country regards as critically important, including culture, traditions, moral standings and the financial services sector.
‘If we cannot get the opposition …. To agree to restrict or eliminate the UK’s ability to do those things to us, then we will have failed the country in this process,’ he said.
‘The Leader of the Opposition needs to tell this country today why they have suddenly developed such a high degree of comfort that the UK will always act benignly; is always going to act in the best interests of the Cayman Islands; is never going to extend to us any convention that we don’t like; is not going to pass legislation that we think it ought not to pass,’ Mr. McLaughlin said.
But Mr. Bush maintained that the sort of powers the PPM are seeking would take the Cayman Islands down a path to independence, saying he is not prepared to allow the Cayman Islands to cut off its nose to spite its face.
‘We have to look at the issue and say is this so bad that we can’t live with it or is it so bad that we have to go independent. That is the question for the Cayman people.’
‘The UK has powers to make laws for us because we are an Overseas Territory,’ he continued. ‘If we can find restrictions that we can get without going independent then put them on the table,’ he said.
Opposition party members were particularly strong in their opposition to the removal of the official members – describing it as a huge point and one they will not cede ground on.
They were particularly scathing of a proposal to remove the Attorney General from Cabinet and the LA, arguing that Britain has traditionally seen the Attorney General’s position within government as the most sacrosanct and that, in any event, he needed to be in both bodies to provide legal advice to the Government.
They did agree with taking away the AG’s responsibility for criminal prosecutions (instead there would be a director of public prosecutions) but were split on how the AG should be appointed. The Government says the premier should choose the AG; the opposition argued that he should be appointed by the Governor, in consultation with the premier.
The Opposition indicated they agreed with many of the Government’s proposals that would introduce more checks and balances on the exercise of executive power but ruled out bringing in term limits for the premier under the new constitution, saying it would be an undemocratic restriction on the voter’s right to choose their representative.
They also expressed reservations about having constitutional backing for limits on public debt presently contained in the Public Management and Finance Law and constitutionally enshrining the operation of the Public Accounts committee. They agreed these are points that could be talked over further during the negotiations with the UK.
There was also partial agreement on leaving the UK Government and the Governor responsible for defence and external affairs but limiting the UK’s ability to enter into agreements that bind the Cayman Islands.
Mr. Bush railed against a government proposal to call the Legislative Assembly a parliament and changing the title of political representatives from MLA’s to MP’s. Such as move, he said, would give the impression that the Cayman Islands had political sovereignty and inferred the legislature has two legislative chambers when the PPM are proposing to continue with just one.
The Opposition said it supports the establishment of a Judicial and Legal Services Commission that would be responsible for appointing judges but disagreed with the PPM that the head of the government and the leader of the opposition should have any role in making appointments to the body, saying it could unnecessarily politicise the body.
Rights at issue
The groups spent Thursday morning debating the proposed bill of right for the Cayman Islands. Both the Government and the opposition agree with the introduction of a bill of rights – although the opposition warned it must not conflict with local morals and values.
The two camps remained split on whether a bill of rights should be enshrined in any new constitution, as the Government has proposed, or whether it should be enacted as a separate piece of domestic legislation, as the opposition maintains.
The Cayman Ministers Association said it is not opposed to a bill of rights, but is concerned about its content and wants to ensure that legislators – not courts – are the ultimate arbiter in cases where rights are in dispute.
The Cayman Islands Mission of Seventh Day Adventists is also anxious that courts not be able to strike down laws deemed to offend rights enumerated in a bill of rights. It said it cannot comment on the contents of a bill of rights until it has seen a draft version.
Mr. McLaughlin was at pains to point out that the Government’s proposal expressly states courts would not have such a power. Instead, courts would be able to issue a certificate informing the LA that the specific law was in breach of human rights, but it would be for legislators to decide what to do about that breach.
It was the first time the two political parties had sat down to discuss constitutional reform since the PPM Government launched its constitutional modernisation drive in January.
Mr. Tibbetts said the aim of this week’s talks is to secure the best constitutional deal possible for the Cayman Islands. ‘That is a new constitution that is acceptable to the vast majority of the people; a constitution that reflects our values, hopes and our aspirations in a continuing relationship with the United Kingdom.’
He warned: ‘If we miss this train, it is likely that we will not have a similar opportunity for quite a while; perhaps several years.’