Elections supervisor Wesley Howell will speak at a public meeting Thursday evening on the cruise port referendum issue amid uncertainty over if and when a public vote on the controversial issue will take place.
The Cruise Port Referendum campaign announced last week that it had hit the threshold required to trigger a referendum on whether or not government should proceed with plans for a cruise and cargo port in George Town harbour.
A people-initiated referendum, in which the public uses its constitutional power to force a national vote in circumstances where the government opposes such a move, is unprecedented in the Cayman Islands.
The pressure group is hosting a meeting from 6pm on Thursday at the Town Hall in George Town with Howell and Caymanian historian and former politician Roy Bodden slated as guest speakers. Department of Environment director Gina Ebanks-Petrie was also invited to speak, but the move was blocked by ministry officials who suggested the campaigners could address any questions to her in writing.
Organisers hope that Howell will outline the process that will take place to verify the petition signatures and make the arrangements for a vote.
The campaigners said in a statement, “Following a meeting between CPR Cayman and the Elections Office, the petition is currently being prepared to be delivered to [the] Elections Office to begin the official verification process.
“The collection of signatures remains ongoing to safely exceed the minimum requirement, and registered voters who have not yet signed the petition are encouraged to sign right away to be a part of Cayman Islands history in the making.”
Premier Alden McLaughlin said last week that the campaigners’ declaration that their petition had hit the target of 25% of the electorate – around 5,300 signatures – was “presumptive and premature”.
Government has consistently argued that holding a referendum would delay the port development to such a degree that it would torpedo the project, regardless of the result of the vote. It is currently in the final stages of negotiations with three consortiums bidding on the project, and has separately negotiated $180 million in financial commitments from cruise lines to the development.
The Opposition group has backed the referendum campaign and accused the premier of being “in denial” over the necessity for a national vote.
Newly elected Leader of the Opposition Arden McLean issued a statement Tuesday saying, “The Official Opposition Members support and applaud the cruise pier campaigners in achieving a historic first. Their determination in the face of the Government machinery operating against them is a triumph for people power and the steadfast belief that Governments should work for, work with and not work against its people.”
There are currently no official protocols or procedures in place outlining how the petition should be handled once it is submitted.
The constitution includes scope for a general law to be put in place outlining the process for referenda, but no such law has been implemented. On the two previous occasions that referenda have been held in Cayman, for the implementation of the constitution and over ‘one man, one vote’ election reform, specific bespoke legislation was introduced by government to allow each vote to take place.
Howell has previously told the Compass that the Cabinet and Legislative Assembly direct the terms of a referendum and the Elections Office is then responsible for organising it.
Government could seek to contest the validity of the petition or challenge the notion that the constitutional provision for people-initiated referendums is binding in all circumstances.
Legal experts have previously suggested this approach is unlikely to succeed.
Andrew Woodcock, of Hampson and Company, told the Compass in February that Sections 69 and 70 of the constitution, which deal with referenda, were unambiguous and he does not believe they would be open to legal challenge.
Woodcock, formerly a lecturer at the Truman Bodden Law School, said Section 69, which says government “may” call a referendum if the majority of legislators approve, referred only to government-initiated referendums and does not, in his view, conflict with the power of the people to force a referendum through Section 70 on matters of ‘national importance’.
“The effect of Section 70 is that, where a petition signed by 25% of the electorate is submitted to Cabinet, there is no discretion. A referendum must be called,” he said.
“It is for this reason that it is a highly democratic provision. This is particularly so in a smaller jurisdiction such as ours, where the number of signatures required is relatively small.”
Woodcock said the Constitution does give government the power to set the question for a people-initiated referendum.
“As you would appreciate, the manner in which a question is phrased can have a very significant political impact. Therefore, the provision is not entirely democratically transparent,” he added.
He said there was potentially some room for argument over whether the issue at hand met the bar for a topic of ‘national importance’. There is no definition of this phrase in the constitution, meaning it could be open to interpretation.
“There is an argument to say that, whenever 25% of the registered voters … wish to have a matter dealt with at referendum, it must be deemed to be a question of national importance. That is, the mere fact of the interest of such a proportion of the population renders it a question of national importance. That, however, is my own view, and is not made clear by the Constitution,” he added.
McLean, in his statement on behalf of the opposition group Tuesday, said the cruise berthing facility was the largest infrastructure project in Cayman’s history.
“We all must share this planet and it is disheartening, disappointing and dispiriting to see the Government refusing to engage transparently on the financial as well as the environmental impact of this project,” he said. “Despite being aware that the campaign has reached the required threshold, the Premier is still in denial.
“While the real work is yet to come, we are encouraged that the Caymanian people have demonstrated their intention to embrace participatory democracy, but we must express our disappointment in the Government’s abject failure to follow suit.”
More information on Thursday’s event is available at CPR Cayman’s Facebook page, by calling 327-5411 or emailing [email protected]