Government passes port referendum bill

Premier Alden McLaughlin speaks during the port referendum bill debate in the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday. - Photo: Taneos Ramsay

Government passed a bill Wednesday afternoon paving the way for the historic people-initiated referendum on the port project to go ahead.

In a late amendment to head off a potential legal challenge, government dropped the question and date from the main bill. Instead, Cabinet will set these elements through regulations.

Premier Alden McLaughlin suggested this change was largely a procedural issue to satisfy concerns raised by the legal team of the Cruise Port Referendum Cayman campaign.

He said Cabinet has authority through the Constitution to set the question and date and hinted that neither would change from what had been outlined in the original bill.

The date for the poll is still almost certain to be 19 Dec. and McLaughlin said significant changes to the question were unlikely. He said it would be presumptive for him to say there would be no changes at all but added, “In very short order, it will be clear, but you can take as a good indication of what Cabinet will do from what has already been published.”

He said there was no chance that the cargo and cruise elements would be separated in the question, as some have requested.

He said the two elements were “indivisible”.

“You can’t ask a question that cannot be answered properly in practical terms. There is no separate cruise project,” he said.

Amendments also added the principles by which the question should be set, including that it should be clear and simple, directed at the core matter and be neutral in phrasing.

The bill also now explicitly includes language indicating the threshold for the result to be binding on government is if more than 50% of registered electors vote for or against the referendum question.

An amendment was also made to ensure that deceased people could be struck from the electoral roll before the poll.

Asked by Opposition legislators how he would proceed if government loses the vote on the day but the constitutional threshold is not met, McLaughlin said it would be a policy decision for his government to make at that time.

Though he has previously indicated government would proceed with the project under those circumstances, he stopped short of making that commitment Wednesday.

“That will be the matter for the Cabinet in due course,” he said.

McLaughlin defended the constitutional provision for a higher bar in such referendums, saying, “If you want to stop or change government policy, you have got to demonstrate that more than 50% of the electorate agree with you because you are now seeking to change the outcome, in policy terms, of a general election of a democratically elected government.

“If you don’t reach the threshold, you haven’t bound the government; then, it becomes a political and policy decision of the government, faced with the result of a referendum that falls short of the binding threshold, whether to proceed or not. That is how the system is set up to work.”

No changes were made to the bill to deal with other concerns raised, including newly registered voters who did not join the electoral roll in time being unable to vote.

No additions were made to deal with campaign financing – another concern raised by CPR and Opposition legislators during the debate.

In terms of what happens next, McLaughlin said, “As soon as the law is assented to and gazetted, Cabinet will convene to formally settle the question and determine the date, and that will then be gazetted by virtue of regulations.”

Earlier in the day, the premier had warned that passing the bill was the only way to ensure a people-initiated referendum took place.

He said Cabinet had fulfilled its constitutional responsibility by bringing the bill to the house.

“If this legislature fails to pass the bill currently before the house, there is no basis for the holding of a referendum,” he said.

He added, “Some may vote no or abstain – that is their democratic right, but let it be understood by all that a failure to support this bill is a vote against the holding of a people-initiated referendum.”

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