Surely the most recent House meetings convened to discuss “freely and unchained” —to borrow the words of the prime minister—a report by the Constitutional Reform Commission exposed as never before the normally masked nature of our politicians. Headed by retired judge Suzie d’Auvergne, the CRC was “by unanimous resolution dated 17 February 2004” authorized to examine the island’s constitution and to seek ways by which to “strengthen democratic institutions; encourage a wider and deeper participation by citizens in the processes of government; strengthen accountability of public institutions and the fundamental and basic rights of citizens of Saint Lucia.”The commission also was required to report in writing its opinions and recommendations for “possible reform.” It has emerged that the commission could not start its work in earnest until 1 June 2006, nearly two years after publication of the statutory instrument that had established it. Among the commission’s stated reasons for the delay: “Lack of operational funds, apparently occasioned by the sluggishness or indifference to the work of the commission on the part of the public service.”
The CRC, “after much effort and considerable frustration,” established a website in the last quarter of 2006. Much to the commission’s “dismay and regret,” the dedicated technical and financial assistance necessary to make the website interactive was “never made available through central government.”
The government was similarly tightfisted when it came to funding the production and broadcasting of related public service announcements. Thanks to UNDP generosity, the commission was finally able to produce not only the required PSAs but also a one-hour TV documentary on constitutional reform that could be “strategically re-utilized in any eventual referendum campaign reform.”
Between May and October 2007 the CRC made “diligent efforts to engage young Saint Lucians” at several of the island’s schools. A privately sponsored essay competition on “the desirability and necessity of constitutional reform” was launched, with special awards for winners under and over the age of sixteen. Commissioners participated in several “popular radio and TV call-in programs” that uncovered “remarkable public interest in the constitutional debate.” Beginning in October 2007 and extending until December 2008 “initial community outreach activities transformed into interactive public consultations.”
Commissioners also visited and interacted with well known overseas Saint Lucian communities. The commission was “heartened at the level of interest displayed in matters of constitutional reform.”
In its report submitted to the governor general in March 2011 the commission expressed its gratitude for the endorsement of its efforts by the late and current prime ministers Sir John Compton and Kenny Anthony. The commission noted that “the political experiences of the post-independence period have left many Saint Lucians wondering about the functioning of their constitution and the implications for their democracy. The political turmoil of the 1979 period, the political uncertainties associated with two general elections in April 1987, the political retirement of John Compton in 1996, his return to power in 2006 and his death in 2007 constitute what politics is all about. The reality is that Saint Lucia needs to enjoy prolonged political stability with a new political culture that will transform the zero-sum game of the Westminster-style model into a culture of scrutiny, transparency and oversight.”
Moreover: “The enhanced political responsibility that will be placed in the hands of the parliamentarians as committee members in a new parliament will force the system to accept different standards of political behavior that are higher than those which currently exist. There are too many who complain about the process, but when faced with the real prospect of change shy away to the safe corner of the parliamentary system with which they are familiar.”
Finally the commission tossed at our current political leaders the following challenge: “Who will dare to change the way political business is done?”
Who indeed? Following are some excerpts from Saint Lucia’s prime minister—who presumably had seen the need for constitutional adjustments and, via the governor general, handed the Suzie d’Auvergne commission its all-important assignment, doubtless at great cost to taxpayers: “There are things I supported in the lecture theaters of the University of the West Indies that I no longer support. Why? It is only when you bring the provisions of a constitution to life that you see its strengths and its weaknesses. I want to emphasize that as a small country, when we are thinking of constitutional reform there are some imperatives that we have to put on the table. Whatever we are going to create, at the end we have to bear in mind some simple facts.
“We are a small country; we are a struggling country; we have limited resources. When we are crafting a constitution we have to be careful we can pay for it and our resources are sufficient to pay for the institutions we are creating. We have to be careful about how we nourish the tree of democracy. Democracy ought never to be complex; it must never be intimidating.”
Was the prime minister saying he did not know before last week that there would be a cost to constitutional reform? Was he saying the suggested reforms, regardless of how necessary, had to be put on hold until the government had surplus funds? Did he mean to say Saint Lucia’s tree of democracy would remain under-nourished for the foreseeable future?
The prime minister sensed something counterproductive in the proposals of the CRC: “The danger in any report of a constitution commission is that in its search for solutions, it can offer solutions that are far more complex than what exist. We have to be careful that we do not import principles that will cause institutional paralysis. Institutional paralysis is for a small state as ours very, very dangerous.”
Obviously, he is quite happy with things as they are, with a parliamentary system that permits him to be monarch of all he surveys and imbues him with the power to chain and unchain government MPs at his convenience—regardless of the expressed contrary wishes of the electorate. Besides, he was not convinced the commission had “properly interpreted the will of the people.”
He compared his own situation with that of the President of the United States. Sometimes, he said, “Obama has to wait weeks and months for an appointment with his Cabinet.” Cryptically, he added: “Yes, it is an opportunity to review the credentials of a potential candidate but it is also an opportunity for political punishment. For political mischief, as I heard someone say.”
The “someone” the prime minister referred to was his deputy, Philip J. Pierre. Not only was the Castries East MP altogether averse to any pruning of the prime minister’s near limitless power, but he also was outraged by what he perceived to be a conspiracy to “make the younger generation believe politicians are in a dishonorable profession.” He had seen the suggestion “all over this document that politicians are corrupt, can’t make right decisions, are silly and stupid.”
Pierre had also recommended at last week’s House meeting that taxpayers should pay for election campaigns. He ridiculed the notion of voters being given the power of recall and clearly suggested the commission comprised a group of elitists hell-bent on controlling the affairs of state without exposing themselves to hazards of the campaign trail.
Pierre’s views on the power of recall were supported by other MPs, one of whom warned she would not be “the instrument of my own demise.”
As noted in last weekend’s STAR, the prime minister closed the discussions with his declaration that some of the commission’s proposals were “otiose.” Also that its report hinted at “an obsession with the power of the prime minister.” It remains to be seen whether the nation heard the last of the Suzie d’Auvergne report, despite that the prime minister has decided it must undergo further consideration by a special committee yet to be set up!