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ALBERT BRANDFORD: Referendum first


ALBERT BRANDFORD: Referendum first

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WHENEVER Prime Minister Freundel Stuart decides to make his move on taking Barbados to republican status, he must, if only as a matter of courtesy, consult with the Barbadian people first.

Some, an opportunistic few, who mayhap be found in the ranks of the zealous among the Opposition Barbados Labour Party, have been suggesting that the Prime Minister should call a general election to seek not just a fresh mandate but in so doing make republican status a central campaign plank which is something no leader of the Democratic Labour Party before him has done.

That smells somewhat like a political dare for a Government that is manifestly unpopular.

Not a desired goal

However, it is all well and good for Stuart to speak with unabashed pride of the movement towards full sovereignty for Barbados being started by the revered Errol Barrow but it is also true that no succeeding DLP leader has explicitly declared republican status to be a desired goal and staked their own political fortunes and that of the party on getting the support of the majority of voters.

Not even the widely popular David Thompson was prepared, at the height of the last republic ruckus raised by Owen Arthur, to take the gamble.

In an interview with me for the SUNDAY SUN in June 2000, following the submission of the Forde Commission report on the Constitution, Thompson supported the referendum call, firmly setting his face against parliamentarians believing they can substitute their judgement on the matter for that of the people.

“Neither the commission itself nor Parliament are effective substitutes for the full participation of people in making decisions that affect their lives,” he said.

Stuart now has the opportunity to lead his party into the next phase of the constitutional exercise which some might say his unfortunate predecessor did not have the time to pursue during his short tenure.

How much support?

One can never be sure just how much support Stuart has within the party for the move although the out-of-favour Minister of Education Ronald Jones, who is no longer being asked to act as Prime Minister these days, was first out last Monday as this was being written (short week deadlines and all!).

Jones urged Barbadians not to be sidetracked by naysayers who would “prevent us from stepping out firmly and surely” on the path of becoming a republic.

The move, he added, would mean an adjustment to the Constitution but “if they started paving the road under the monarchical system yesterday, today they will be paved under the republican system”.

Should Stuart take the appropriate path, then the question would arise: what should be the question?

First question

Let us hope, if he does, that he will avoid the ludicrous, emotion-filled first question posed by the Arthur Administration that caused many people to wonder if that Prime Minister was really serious about taking the republic road.

It read: “Do you agree that the Head of State of Barbados should be a citizen of Barbados?”

The derision with which it was greeted apparently forced Arthur into a rethink, but the Administration came up with a longer, convoluted and almost equally off-putting second question:

“Do you agree with the recommendation of the Constitution Review Commission that Barbados should become a parliamentary republic with a Head of State of Barbados being a president who is a citizen of Barbados?”

Parenthetically, as the Arthur Administration was jumping through the hoops to get it right, a novel suggestion emerged from his then deputy Prime Minister Mia Mottley that the proposed referendum be held simultaneously with the general election thereby giving the electorate two bites of the cherry, as it were, for the price of one.

Idea discarded

Mercifully, that idea got little traction and was discarded almost as quickly as it was proffered.

According to the literature, referendum advocates support Thompson and argue that certain decisions are best taken out of the hands of representatives and determined directly by the people.

Others insist that the principle of popular sovereignty demands that certain foundational questions, such as the adoption or amendment of a constitution, be determined with the directly expressed consent of the people.

To paraphrase Arthur: Barbadians are building a nation and also creating a sense of national identity, holding up symbols of Bar-badianness as inspirations for the people and ceasing to seek foreign validation of them, and becoming a land of genuine opportunity in which anyone can aspire to reach the highest office in the land.

Mr Stuart, hold the referendum; Barbadians deserve no less.

Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent.