Constitutional conundrum

The Cayman Islands started the year by embarking on an ambitious public debate aimed at changing the country’s constitutional relationship with its colonial ruler, England.

By the end of 2008, talks with the United Kingdom were underway but there were still serious questions about whether the process could be completed in time for an election scheduled for 20 May, 2009.

The effort began in high spirits with a constitutional kick-off on 12 January at Pedro St James, which was attended by hundreds of island residents.

‘We need to make a start somewhere,’ said Margaret Reed, among those in attendance. ‘I’m going to read as much as I can read and get up to date as I can because this is my country, and I’ve got to be a part of it.’

The initial plans released by the government in January essentially aimed to swing more administrative power within government to the elected side, and take away some of the Cayman Islands Governor’s complete autonomy in areas of national security and the management of the civil service.

Ministers proposed a Legislative Assembly made up of entirely elected members, with the exception of the attorney general who would not be allowed to vote. They urged the creation of a bill of rights, which would be the first in Cayman’s history if it is included in the constitution.

Ideas such as allowing immigrant Caymanians to run for public office, after they had held status in the country for 25 years, were bandied about. Proposals for the creation of single-member voting districts were discussed.

The over-arching plan was to hold a referendum in May which would allow Caymanians to cast one vote, up or down, in favour of constitutional plans before they were negotiated with the UK.

A marathon series of public hearings began toward the end of January and lasted until early May. During the first round of meetings, there was a good public turnout but those who showed up hadn’t formed much of an opinion on proposals put forth by the government.

By the time late March, early April rolled around voters began to get more opinionated. The general consensus was that a bill of rights was desired, but concerns about gay marriage and religious freedoms had yet to be addressed adequately. Plans to allow immigrants who had achieved citizenship to run for public office were also shot down fairly early in the discussion.

As the last of the public meetings wrapped up, the initial May referendum date approached. Government officials were forced to push back the date until the summer. Plans for a vote were again tentatively set, but scuttled as it appeared no firm consensus was emerging on several issues presented in the constitutional discussions.

The ruling government went to ‘plan B.’ Officials decided to delay the referendum until after the outcome of negotiations with the UK, which began in September. A second round of talks has been set for mid-January and negotiators expect a third sitting will be needed before a draft constitution is produced.

A working draft of the on-going discussions emerged earlier this month when Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush released the document to the press.

Although the proposals in it were not final, it appeared that plans for a full ministerial, or elected, government were still moving forward. However, earlier proposals to reduce the governor’s authority had been changed, allowing the appointed office to retain most of its current powers.

An extensive, specific bill of rights has also emerged from the talks; although some church minister’s groups have expressed concerns it doesn’t go far enough to protect the Cayman Islands from civil unions.

Following talks with the UK, government hopes to present a draft document to the public. However, Cabinet ministers admit opportunity to change that document before the scheduled 20 May referendum will be little to none.

The final step in the process will be the public vote; if that doesn’t happen, no new constitution can be agreed upon. The proposal also has to be debated and passed in the Legislative Assembly before voters go to the polls.

‘Quite frankly, this is do-or-die,’ Education Minister Alden McLaughlin said in December. ‘The window of opportunity (for constitutional reform) has narrowed to this point.’

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