Constitutional reform: A golden opportunity
ARINTHIA S. KOMOLAFE
Published: Jul 16, 2013
President George Washington once said that “the basis of our political system is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government”. This statement appears relevant when one considers The Bahamas and the events surrounding our current Constitution that have been in effect for the past four decades. Although there has been one real attempt to amend certain provisions of The Bahamas’ Constitution back in 2002 by way of a historic inaugural referendum, no entrenched provision of the supreme law of our land has been amended to date.
It is noteworthy to state that within the last decade of governance, two constitutional commissions have been formed to review the provisions of the Constitution and to suggest and consider various reforms of the same, if necessary. The chairman of the Constitutional Commission, Sean McWeeney, QC, presented the report on constitutional reform to Prime Minister Perry G. Christie ahead of the 40th independence anniversary celebrations on July 8, 2013. It is anticipated that a referendum on certain proposed reforms will be held before the end of 2013. It is imperative that in the interest of our dear nation in general, and generations yet unborn in particular, this upcoming referendum is not politicized or used as an opportunity to further divide our people. Indeed the imminent constitutional referendum is too vital in charting our course for the future to be allowed to suffer the same fate as previous referenda. The Bahamian people must understand and appreciate the scope, magnitude and importance of this event as we embark upon the next 40 years of our journey as a nation.
The importance of the Constitution
As the supreme law of the land, the Constitution is the ultimate document that governs the relationship between the various arms of government and any separation of powers thereto. In this sense, it is not unusual that one will find the process of governance between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government codified in this vital document. However, perhaps of even greater importance to the individual citizens and residents are the fundamental rights and freedoms that are outlined in the document and thereby govern the relationship between individuals and the state.
It is an established principle that no law of the land should be contrary or adverse to the provisions of the Constitution. It follows therefore that in the case of conflict, the provisions of the Constitution will prevail. This basic principle further underscores the supremacy and importance of the Constitution, the manner in which it is drafted and the actual application of its provisions.
An important public discussion
The continuous and intense discussion on the provisions of the Constitution during the last decade is arguably evidence of our political maturity and signifies growing interest in the manner in which the state executes and governs its affairs. It seems apparent that discussions surrounding amendments are predicated on the evolution of our social, political and economic landscape. The case for revisiting and amending the Constitution is a natural progression based on a generally more enlightened, educated and diverse populace 40 years after the implementation of the document.
The social and political philosophies of today’s generation of Bahamians and our people as a whole, which have been shaped by our exposure through academics, technology, diverse media and world travel, have also played a role in this quest for change.
The people’s demands
It is apparent from the discussions that the people require more accountability from the government in governance and the execution of their mandate. There is also a call to strengthen the checks and balances within the arms of government and governance by our leaders. The calls for the imposition of fixed dates for general elections, fixed term limits on parliamentary and executive branch leaders, a recall system of elected officials and entrenched provisions of local government placing more power into the hands of the people, to mention a few, are proof of this evolving ideology. In the midst of this crucial debate, various factions within the Bahamian society have put their cases forward based on their individual values and philosophies. It was fitting in this regard that the appearances before the Constitutional Commission included religious leaders, members of the judiciary, activists, student representatives and political leaders. The presentations included myriad topics such as the wording and contents of the preamble, calls for the amendment or abolition of various clauses deemed to be discriminatory, questions on jury trials, our system of governance and the right to citizenship in The Bahamas.
The equality of women
The provisions of the Constitution which discriminate against Bahamian women regarding the passage of citizenship to their children seem to have taken center stage in the midst of the discussion. It is an understatement to remark that Bahamian women should possess the same equal rights as their male counterparts in every respect; hence the proposed amendments are not only long overdue, such discrimination should never have been entrenched in the Constitution in the first place.
It is interesting and disheartening that there seems to be more men advocating the amendment of the clause compared to women. This raises obvious concerns as one wonders whether Bahamian women appreciate the gravity of this discriminatory provision and the impact it has on them. It is apparent that women’s groups and leaders in the church, educational arena and civic society must rise to the task to foster momentum among women through education on the relevant clauses affecting them.
The way forward
Now that the commission has presented its report, further public and private education campaigns leading up to the referendum must commence. The ground work for possible reforms has been produced through the work of two competent committees of commissioners. The success in any future constitutional referenda will depend on bipartisan consensus and the ability of politicians and/or their supporters to lay aside their political allegiance in favor of national advancement.
The Bahamas has conquered slavery, fought for workers rights, attained universal adult suffrage and instituted a framework that ensures the voice of the majority will not be stifled in the democratic electoral process. After celebrating 40 years of progressive, prosperous and peaceful advancement and existence despite the odds, we have proven that the next generation of Bahamians are well able to move the country forward and constitutional reform will not be an exception.
The continued building of our nation and proposed reforms should envision a Bahamas where the fundamental rights and freedom of citizens (indigenous or not) and residents are upheld, thereby preventing and eliminating all forms of discrimination. Equality, albeit relative, must always be at the fore of our progress. Although many suggest that such a quest is a utopian view, we must pursue it nevertheless. We are grateful to the constitutional committee for its hard work and labor, now our work begins to assess the merits or lack thereof of their recommendations and summations. This generation after independence has been presented with a golden opportunity to revise our Constitution, shape our future and determine our destiny for the next 40 years.
• Arinthia S. Komolafe is an attorney-at-law. Comments can be directed at email@example.com.