Saunders raises concerns about Constitution changes

MLA Chris Saunders says he’s concerned that some of his fellow members are making it too easy to make changes to the Cayman Islands Constitution.

Saunders has submitted a letter to the United Kingdom’s Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the UN, Lord Tariq Ahmad, saying he does not think a series of proposed changes to the 10‑year-old document should be made without submitting them to the voting public as a referendum.

The representative for Bodden Town West said he wants to make sure Cayman’s democracy is working.

“I am not opposed to constitutional changes,” Saunders said. “But you can’t have people sitting in the backroom, making decisions on changing the Constitution. Changes should be done by a referendum. It needs to go to the people. We can’t unilaterally propose changes without their consent. That is really the issue.”

Saunders contends that what was initially an effort to prevent perceived overreach by the British government, following a change the UK imposed on Cayman’s beneficial ownership laws last year, expanded to include other elements, including enlarging the size of the Cabinet, eliminating the governor’s ability to introduce legislation and forming a new police commission to assist the governor.

He said none of the 13 proposals he lists in his letter are minor or uncontroversial. Guidelines set in 2009 by the British Foreign Office say any constitutional change not agreed to be minor or uncontroversial by both the premier and opposition leader, should be submitted as a referendum.

Premier Alden McLaughlin said when negotiations on the changes took place last December with British officials, both he and then-Opposition Leader Ezzard Miller agreed that none of the issues were controversial.

“I’m not suggesting for a minute that any of the changes are minor,” McLaughlin said. “What the UK has acknowledged is these changes are not minor. But as far as the UK is concerned they’re uncontroversial because it was agreed to.”

Miller said he was on board with the changes, as was his deputy Alva Suckoo.

“Alva did not object to one single issue that I recall,” Miller said.

“I’m not opposed to a referendum,” he added, “but my position is the Constitution does not require a referendum, otherwise the UK government would not have agreed”.

Because the Cayman Islands are still an overseas territory, it is the British Foreign Office that controls the Constitution and makes any actual changes.

“While they will, in most cases listen to what the territories have to say,” McLaughlin said, “on more than one occasion, when they believe certain things should be a certain way, they make them that way.”

McLaughlin questioned Saunders’ motives.

“It’s never been an issue for anyone except Chris,” the premier said. “He’s concerned with politics and being an obstructionist.”

He said Saunders “agreed to all these proposals in advance” of the negotiations.

Saunders, however, produced screenshots of texts he sent to Alva Suckoo shortly before the negotiations commenced saying he did not agree with “any changes to the domestic make-up of Cabinet”.

Saunders said he just wants to make sure Caymaninans have input on any changes to the document. He’s incensed that a motion he recently put forward in the Legislative Assembly was not accepted by Speaker McKeeva Bush.

“The motion that I filed sought support and approval for any major or material changes to the Cayman Islands Constitution to be approved by a referendum locally,” Saunders wrote in his letter to Ahmad. “Additionally, it also sought support and approval that any minor changes be approved by the Legislative Assembly as opposed to an agreement between the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition.”

In a radio interview, McLaughlin said Bush turned it down for legal reasons. “The motion itself is not constitutional,” McLaughlin said. “It seeks to get the House to do something the House doesn’t have the power to do.”

Saunders said he fears the leaders are setting a precedent that will make it easier to change the Constitution in the future.

“We need to set a very high bar to change that document,” he said.