Legislators voted unanimously Thursday to affirm sections of the Constitution that enshrine the qualifications for standing for political office locally and eligibility to vote in the Cayman Islands as the status quo.
It followed a private member’s motion from Deputy Leader of the Opposition Alva Suckoo in the Legislative Assembly on Thursday.
Suckoo, in presenting his motion, expressed concern that Cayman may find itself in a situation where the UK could act on recommendations from last year’s Foreign Affairs Committee report which pushed for voting and electoral rights for UK and British Overseas Territories citizens who reside permanently in the overseas territories.
The report had also recommended that a timeline should be set for the establishment of beneficial ownership registries and the legalisation of same-sex marriages in British Overseas Territories. It also suggested that if same-sex marriage laws were not implemented by the deadline set, this should be done through legislation or an Order in Council by the UK government.
Taking Governor Martyn Roper’s use of Section 81 of the Constitution last month to enact the Civil Partnership Law as a jumping-off point, Suckoo said the possibility exists that this section of the Constitution could be used to make law changes which could allow UK citizens to vote in the overseas territories in which they are living.
The Foreign Affairs Committee, in its February 2019 report, Global Britain and the British Overseas Territories-Resetting the relationship, said, “We do not accept that there is any justification to deny legally-resident British Overseas Territory and UK citizens the right to vote and to hold elected office.”
It recommended that the UK government initiate a consultation with the elected governments of the overseas territories and “agree a plan to ensure that there is a pathway for all resident UK and British Overseas Territory citizens to be able to vote and hold elected office”.
Overseas territories premiers, including Alden McLaughlin, rejected this recommendation wholly.
Suckoo said he was concerned that, because the terms ‘rule of law’ and ‘human rights’ were used in the UK instruction letter issued to the governor to assent to the legal framework for same-sex unions, these could also be used as a basis to allow resident UK citizens to vote or run for office in Cayman or other BOT jurisdictions.
“Despite assurances that this is not high on the agenda in some quarters, the wording in the UK government’s response [to the report] is very similar to the wording I saw on same-sex marriage,” Suckoo said.
In its response to the committee’s report, the UK government stated at the time that it understood the committee’s concerns “and continues to impress upon OT governments the importance of allowing people who have made their permanent home in the territories the ability to vote and engage fully in the community, but recognises the desire of island communities to maintain their cohesion, hence the need for a reasonable qualifying process. We understand the OTs’ concerns, sensitivities and historical background on this issue.”
Newlands MLA Suckoo said there is disquiet in the community after the action taken by the governor regarding same-sex unions, as well as the change in position when it came to beneficial ownership.
The vote on his motion, to affirm Sections 61 and 90 of the Constitution, ended with 16 lawmakers in favour and two absentees.
Health Minister Dwayne Seymour sought to register his vote in favour of the motion, but because he was not in his seat in time for the vote he was noted as absent.
House Speaker McKeeva Bush, at the end of the vote, also recorded his support.
Belongership remains a concern
Suckoo, in his presentation, questioned what would happen if the issue of ‘belongership’ enters the courts and elicits a similar declaration to that made in the same-sex marriage legal challenge.
This, he said, was why he brought the motion, to affirm the Constitution provisions on voting and eligibility for elected office.
‘Belongership’ in Cayman effectively refers to the granting of Caymanian status.
Suckoo said Cayman cannot give leadership to anyone who is not “born with” or has “ingrained” loyalty to these islands.
He also said the court’s declaration in the Chantelle Day and Vickie Bodden Bush case was not a “ruling” and was not binding.
McLaughlin said government will support Suckoo’s motion, but added that the UK action on the Civil Partnership Law and recommendations from the Foreign Affairs Committee report are separate issues.
The premier said that law was introduced after legislators failed to support the Domestic Partnership Bill (which was later assented to by the governor with the revised title of Civil Partnership Bill), and the UK had to step in, based on the Cayman Islands Court of Appeal ruling in the Day-Bodden Bush case.
He said it was “quite out of order” for any member to say that a declaration of the court is not a ruling and it should be ignored.
“We have a duty not to mislead,” McLaughlin said, adding that there is no distinction between a ruling and a declaration, both of which should be acted upon.
He said that as long as Cayman is a British Overseas Territory, it must operate within the ambit of the Constitution Order which sets out the legal nature of the relationship between the UK and the Cayman Islands.
McLaughlin said Cayman had lost the opportunity to take away the governor’s reserved powers following the failure of the Domestic Partnership Bill in the House. Now, he said, the UK is insisting that these powers be retained “because they think they need it”.
While he said the UK is “unlikely in the extreme” to intervene in a matter such as belongership, unless there were challenges in local courts and the courts issue a declaration that the constitutional sections were working unfairly.
McLaughlin said he does not see that as a possibility, “but, then again, stranger things have happened”.
He urged lawmakers not to assume that affirming the correctness of the sections of the Constitution that deal with the qualifications to stand for election and criteria for voting “is somehow some magical spell that will ward off any possible changes to this by the UK sometime down the road”.
George Town Central MLA Kenneth Bryan and Opposition Leader Arden McLean both supported the motion and registered their concern with the belongership status.
Deputy Governor Franz Manderson reminded lawmakers that Cayman is compliant with the UK with respect to belongership, in that those who attain Caymanian status through the current immigration process are allowed to vote.
“We have put a clear system in place,” Manderson said.
However, he said, the eligibility to stand for office is held “dearly” here and is not something is passed on through the immigration process.
As it stands, only born Caymanians are allowed to stand for election.
Manderson does not see belongership as an issue the UK will push.