The road to reform
Guardian News Editor
Published: Jul 08, 2013
This week will be a week of celebration in The Bahamas as the country observes its 40th anniversary of independence.
But it is also being marked by debate over what kind of nation we have built since July 10, 1973.
Bahamians everywhere know what the challenges are for us at this time: High crime, a still shaky economy, poor socialization, educational challenges and a lack of economic empowerment, which was the topic of last week’s National Review.
Prime Minister Perry Christie has also decided that the 40th anniversary is an ideal time to take another stab at constitutional reform.
This morning, he is set to receive the report of the Constitutional Commission, which was headed by former Attorney General Sean McWeeney, QC.
The report to be presented to the prime minister at the British Colonial Hilton hotel this morning is expected to make significant recommendations.
The question of citizenship and the inability of Bahamian women married to foreign men to automatically pass citizenship on to their children was among the issues addressed by the McWeeney commission.
At the time of the commission’s appointment last year, Christie said, “It’s a very important issue and it’s one that we indicated that we are prepared to put to the people of the country.”
Explaining how this provision ended up in the constitution, Governor General Sir Arthur Foulkes, who was a part of constitutional negotiations in 1972, said in a recent interview, “The argument was that in matters of citizenship the international practice was that the women follow the men and I suppose that was true.
“Some of us took the position that at this time, you know the world is moving on, and that women should be equal in every respect, including bequeathing citizenship on their foreign spouses and their children [we believed that it should be equal].
“There should be no difference between getting citizenship between the mother and the father. The British government did not agree with that at the time, and so we still have what I regard as an aberration in our constitution and it is a matter now that we have debated before and it is a matter now that I believe the Constitutional Commission is looking at again.
“What you see today is what exists in the constitution, that there should be a difference between the acquisition of citizenship between the male and the female and that was the fundamental difference and the British government of course prevailed on that issue.”
Former Cabinet Minister George Smith, who was also a part of the official delegation to the Constitutional Conference in 1972, agreed that it is time to clear up any misrepresentation about the question of citizenship.
“All those people who were born in The Bahamas prior to 1973 should be made citizens of The Bahamas unless there is some security reasons for them not to be,” Smith said.
“So we have some weighty issues to address in our constitution. The only way we can do it is to take away any political division and look very maturely at what changes ought to be made, how we can modernize it, how we could celebrate citizenship and put the question to the Bahamian people in a way where the Bahamian people understand that the leaders of our country have looked at these issues and they agree on them.
“This is why it is important for both sides of the political divide to come together as one, to look at the document, agree on it and even have some all party conference prior to it going to the people in a referendum, so that when it gets to the people in a referendum a simple question is put, not a complicated question.”
Sir Arthur opined that while reform is a good thing, The Bahamas has a modern constitution.
“We have a constitution that guarantees, with the exception of what we talked about earlier, rights and those rights are spelt out in our constitution,” he said.
“Our system of governance, it’s a good system and our constitution is based on the idea of parliamentary democracy and one of the fundamentals of that is this, and sometimes people forget this, the fundamental idea of a parliamentary democracy is that a people are governed by their own elected representatives.
“That’s the bottom line and all the other things are built on that foundation and we have been governed by our own elected representatives and in the last 40 years we’ve had, I think, four changes of government and they’ve all gone smoothly and at the end of the day when it is time for election, in our system of governance there’s no question about who is responsible.”
Sir Arthur said the citizenship issue is the most pressing issue crying for reform.
But he said, “We have to be very careful that we don’t tamper with the fundamentals of our constitution.
“For instance, I hear people talk about term limits (for the prime minister). Why do we want to import elements of a different kind of constitution, the American constitution, into our constitution where obviously they do not fit?
“...I don’t think Bahamians would like that. I think Bahamians ought to decide through their political parties who they want to lead us. If they want someone to lead us for five years, fine, 10 years, fine, 15 years [fine]. It should be a choice for the Bahamian people.”
The governor general also believes this might be an appropriate juncture to re-examine the role of the Senate.
He said both the Progressive Liberal Party and the Free National Movement have used the Senate in ways not originally contemplated.
“The idea of the Senate was supposed to be at the end of the day your senior politicians, your statesmen would sit in that [august] House. That’s why we call it the upper House and that’s why the title you attach is honorable.
“These are men and women who have been through the system, who are senior, who are mature. These are the people who should be sitting in the upper House. Both political parties for the same reasons really have decided to use the Senate as a training ground and as a consolation prize for defeated candidates and that has undermined the whole idea of the Senate and this idea of its seniority and statesmanship and all of that.”
Loftus Roker, a former minister in the Pindling cabinet who also attended the 1972 talks, pointed out that many Bahamians do not understand their constitution.
“I don’t believe it is taught in the schools or anything,” he said. “I don’t believe we know what the constitution is all about. A constitution is the basis of our sovereignty and to willy nilly change that in my view is folly because if the average person believes this is only a piece of paper and you could tear it up and put another piece of paper there any time you like, that’s trouble.”
It is not clear at this point whether the McWeeney commission will recommend The Bahamas move away from the monarchy.
“I know the monarchy bothers a lot of people and it used to bother me too,” Roker said.
“You know when I was a student in London I decided one of the first things I will do if I get the chance is to move Queen Victoria’s statue from where it is and throw it in the ocean. It’s in Parliament Square…I don’t want nothing to do with it. It is still there.
“I discovered that there is something called history and you shouldn’t try to destroy history and history would still be there even if you destroyed it. You can’t give it away and we need to know what happened so we can know where we are going.”
Roker noted that the queen at no time has any power to do anything without the advice and instruction of the government of The Bahamas.
She is purely a figurehead represented in The Bahamas by the governor general.
Roker said the decision was made to leave the queen as a figurehead to comfort people who feared independence.
“We left her there as a symbol,” he said. “That is why we also kept the Privy Council because they were saying Bahamian judges and all of that were going to do all sorts of foolish things. And we decided we would leave the Privy Council there as some last resort that you can go to that we don’t influence.”
This is the second such commission appointed by Christie.
He appointed the first on December 23, 2002, and mandated it to carry out a comprehensive review and make recommendations that would strengthen fundamental freedoms and civil and political rights of the individual, and critically examine the structure of the executive authority.
Important work was done by commission chairs, the late former Attorney General Paul L. Adderley and Harvey Tynes, QC, who, together with the other members of that commission, traveled the country extensively, holding town meetings and gathering the views of Bahamians on what they would like to see changed.
But that commission died a swift death — as did its recommendations — when in 2007, the Free National Movement (FNM) was re-elected.
Hubert Ingraham, prime minister at the time, was weary of dealing with constitutional issues and proposing reforms.
At his first press conference as newly re-elected prime minister at the Cabinet Office one Sunday, he declared to reporters that there would be no more referenda under his watch.
Five years earlier, Bahamian voters overwhelmingly rejected key questions put to them in a referendum brought by the Ingraham administration.
The current Christie administration has already revealed that it intends to call a referendum intended to eliminate discriminatory clauses from the constitution.
This is what Ingraham attempted back in February 2002. But the perhaps pure intentions of the then government were overshadowed by a divisive political climate and the issues of the referendum were derailed.
There is a tendency for politics in The Bahamas to overshadow much.
In some circles, there exists the view, for instance, that the independence celebrations are PLP celebrations.
The current Constitutional Commission has had a strong mix of well-respected Bahamian professionals. Former Attorney General Carl Bethel was the opposition’s representative.
We shall have to wait and see whether the process leading to the next constitutional referendum is able to proceed without the smear of political posturing.
If not, reform could once again be impossible to achieve.