Gov’t ministers say no changes to UK agreement

Referendum set for 20 May

The Cayman Islands will hold what’s believed to be the first referendum in the country’s history on 20 May to decide whether a draft constitution will become the supreme law of the land.

Constitution talks

In this file photo taken at constitution talks held on 15 February, Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush greets Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts as Education Minister Alden McLaughlin looks on.

Following a debate in the Legislative Assembly that lasted about 12 hours Monday, lawmakers unanimously approved the Referendum (Constitutional Modernisation) Bill, 2009.

‘This is historical; there aren’t that many people left in this country that were involved in the 1972 constitution (the last major overhaul in the country’s governing document),’ Works and Infrastructure Minister Arden McLean said during the LA’s debate.

The Cayman Islands and the United Kingdom agreed earlier this month on a final draft constitution that will allow the locally elected government greater input and control in the British Overseas Territory. The draft document also contains the islands’ first bill of rights.

Passage of the Referendum Law had to occur before the 20 May vote could legally be held. The referendum on constitutional modernisation will take place the same day as the Cayman Islands general elections.

According the Referendum Law, the draft constitution will require a simple majority of participating voters to approve it before it can take effect.

The referendum question reads as follows: ‘Do you approve the draft constitution which was agreed by the Cayman Islands constitution delegation and the government of the United Kingdom on 5th February, 2009 and tabled in the Legislative Assembly of the Cayman Islands on 11th February, 2009?’

There were no changes proposed to the wording of that question, and government ministers made it clear there would be no further changes to the draft constitution either.

‘The time for debate, the time for argument…is now past,’ Education Minister Alden McLaughlin said.

A petition circulating Grand Cayman in the past week sought to urge the government to add another ballot option. This would have allowed voters to decide on the exact wording of the anti-discrimination clause in section 16 of the proposed bill of rights.

Local human rights advocates have harshly criticised the draft plan. Rights advocates have said it falls short of providing comprehensive or ‘free standing’ rights against discrimination. As the plan stands now, the government can discriminate in any area not specifically covered in the bill of rights.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle backed the draft bill of rights now contained in the constitution, although Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush said he’s still concerned the proposal has left ‘the door open’ to issues such as same sex unions.

The ruling government and opposition party members appeared Monday to have reached a truce of sorts on the draft constitution. Mr. Bush is still refusing to state publicly how he will vote in the referendum, but neither did he urge anyone to vote against it.

‘That is a decision they (referring to the voters) and they alone must make,’ Mr. Bush said. ‘What we will do is try to inform the people about the document.’

Mr. Bush did offer something close to an endorsement for the draft constitution Monday evening.

‘I am happy with a lot that is in here…there are some areas I don’t like, but it is here and we have to make the best of it,’ Mr. Bush said.

Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts said none of the groups involved in negotiating the draft constitution with the United Kingdom, including the government, opposition party, two churches, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Human Rights Committee, got everything they wanted.

‘It is physically impossible…that those entities agree with every single section in the constitution,’ Mr. Tibbetts said. ‘It’s not going to happen.’

But government ministers continued to push the document as the best deal available for the Cayman Islands right now.

Questions about the mechanics of the 20 May referendum persisted even after lawmakers took their final vote on the bill at 10.26pm Monday.

Mr. Bush was concerned about the Elections Office plan that would require voters to cast their ballots in the general election, and then go to another booth to cast their referendum vote.

‘I am worried that if we try to give a ballot in one room, then come back and go into another that some people may take that up, but some may not,’ he said. ‘What I don’t want is for the constitution to fail on that ground.’

Mr. Bush and other lawmakers seemed disappointed that district-by-district results will not be available in the constitutional referendum. The vote is planned as a national election, and so the Elections’ Office stated it would reveal only the final results.

‘We could show the turnout by district, but as for as the ‘yeses’ and ‘nos’ went, we would only have a total number,’ said elections official Colford Scott.

‘If it is that somebody has (the results by district), then I think we should be told,’ said Bodden Town MLA Osbourne Bodden.

‘Someone is going to know, and somebody needs to know,’ Mr. Bush said. ‘Why can’t we have the statistics from each district?’

Mr. McLaughlin cautioned against releasing district-by-district results on the referendum.

‘One would not want the possible scenario of a district having voted down the constitution…any stigma or worse that might flow from this,’ he said.

But even Speaker of the House Edna Moyle urged government to make the results of the referendum vote in each district public.

‘I don’t want to be political, but if a district is not in favour, why would they hide that they voted it down?’ Mrs. Moyle asked.

In this file photo taken at constitution talks held on 15 February, Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush greets Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts as Education Minister Alden McLaughlin looks on.