The government will conduct a referendum in July of this year on the issue of single member constituencies, meaning every voter would vote for only one candidate.
Premier McKeeva Bush made the announcement in the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday.
“My Government had previously made a commitment to hold a referendum on the issue at the same time as the next general election,” he said. “However due to the deepening divide in the country caused by the way the opposition and the independent member from North Side, [have] used this issue, my government feels it responsible to put this issue to the electors of this country. In our maturing democracy I feel that it’s important that the public be given its full voice on this most important constitutional issue.
“In this vein I am pleased to announce that the government will hold a referendum on the issue of single member constituencies on 18th July, 2012.”
Opposition Members Arden McLean and independent North Side legislator Ezzard Miller have been at the forefront of a petition to force a people-initiated referendum on the matter.
Contacted for his reaction to the surprise development, Mr. Miller merely said:
“I’m not ready to comment.”
Efforts to reach Mr. McLean before press time were unsuccessful.
Further to the provisions of Cayman’s 2009 constitution, for people-initiated referendums to become binding on the government, at least 50 per cent plus one of registered electors must vote in favour of the matter. Asked about the issue on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Bush said the government would require the same threshold – a least 50 per cent plus one of registered voters to vote in favour of the proposal – to be bound to implement single member constituencies.
Asked why July was chosen, Mr. Bush said the matter needed to be put to rest and that holding it in November, when the petitioners wanted to see the referendum, would be too close to the next general elections.
“We want to get it out of the way,” he said. “The issue is being used for political purposes.”
In his statement to the House, Mr. Bush outlined the reasons he’s against single-member constituencies.
“Here are a few reasons why I feel that the adoption of single member constituencies is not for us, and should not be implemented,” he said.
“It will mean the possibility of increased demands on the country’s limited resources, where each constituency will demand individual services and amenities at great expense;
“People who were historically used to voting for and having multiple representatives to represent them, under the changed system would only have a single representative. So people would be put in a worse position; for most people who live in constituencies with four, three or two representatives, if they move to one, their franchise rights will be severely shrunken;
“It’s divisive: It will be one of the most divisive paths for these islands, as it will divide our indigenous vote;
“It will create deeply divided and insular constituencies;
“It will create vast expenses – needing 18 constituency offices, 18 secretaries with associated resources;
“With a different proposal from the opposition for the Sister Islands, it will mean one country, two systems – a different one for Cayman Brac and Little Cayman as against the single member district for Grand Cayman;
Mr. Bush said the Opposition’ suggestion for Cayman Brac and Little Cayman showed the hypocrisy of what is being proposed.
“The Sister Islands have said no to single member constituencies,” he said. “So to appease the PPM’s member of that district they want to give them something different. If the opposition or anyone thinks that Single Member Constituencies is so good for Grand Cayman, why then do they want something different for the Sister Islands?”
He said the issue of single member constituencies had been an issue of debate for more than a decade.
“It is a very divisive issue and when combined with the politics that have been infused into the discussion, it has, and will create significant confusion in these islands,” he said.
Mr. Bush noted that the Boundaries Commission Report of 2010 noted more advantages to disadvantages to the current multimember constituencies. He also noted that voter turnout percentage has increased from about 66 per cent in 1988 to about 80 per cent in 2009.
“My position is, if it’s not broken – we shouldn’t meddle with it,” he said.
The government will commence a public education process on the proposal for single member constituencies, Mr. Bush said. “I am optimistic that after the intelligent people of the Cayman Islands have made themselves fully knowledgeable and informed on the pros and cons of the various systems, as they have always done, they will make the right decision on this subject.”
The referendum will cost the country significant money at a time when there are still severe budget constraints.
Mr. Bush said he’s heard several figures about cost, but he estimates it will cost anywhere from $350,000 to $500,000 to conduct the referendum. He said those figures didn’t include the cost of the public education campaign.