KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent: – Lawmakers here on Tuesday began debating a bill that will put a proposed constitution to a referendum in November, even as the opposition reiterated its intention to campaign for a “No” vote.
But Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, in leading out the debate, said that the proposed Constitution was the best of its kind anywhere in the world.
Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace said that he was not optimistic that the debates would change the stance of the sides of the Parliament on the proposed legislation.
He called on Dr. Gonsalves to announce the date of the referendum.
“The die is cast, Mr. Speaker, the New Democratic Party will vote “No” and encourage the people of this country to vote ‘No’,” Eustace said.
Eustace told Parliament that his party agreed with some sections of the proposed Constitution.
He however said that the Constitution reform exercise had not met its “seminal challenge” of making the country a republic, reducing the powers of the prime minister and deepening the rights and freedoms of citizens.
“I am not getting carried away by all this talk about dramatic change, at all. We have our position on some of these matters and we maintain our position, and we will vote ‘No’ in relation to this piece of legislation…”
Eustace took issues with the phrasing of the preamble of the proposed Constitution as it relates to “inalienable rights” and asked that the words from a previous draft be used.
He was not pleased with the document’s proposals on payment for property acquired by the state, the mixed parliamentary system and, among others, the appointment of the president.
He said many of the proposals, rather than reducing the powers of the prime minister, “All it does, it might take him a few days longer to get what he wants.”
“Everything comes down to the practical application. Not what you write down, saying you have dramatic reductions. Dramatic my eyes! …We have a situation where there are ideas but nobody is willing to flesh them out at this stage,” Eustace told Parliament.
“If we are changing the Constitution of our country, we have to try and get it right. And what we do must find strength in the way it is applied and when you deal with the deepening of democracy and prime ministerial power,” he added.
“I take strong objection to things which I can’t understand how they are going to apply and have benefit in terms of the noble objectives that we say we have set ourselves over these last six years… We have our own concerns about what these things really mean effectively for the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” the Member of Parliament for East Kingstown said.
But Dr. Gonsalves said that no other undertaking of his eight-year-old administration was “more monumental in its significance and meaning and more solemn” than the Constitution reform exercise, which, he said, was “to lift the nature of our country’s governance”.
He said that he had invited his 13-year-old daughter to Parliament to witness as he sought “to deliver unto [her] and [her] generation and to those not yet born, a profound gift; the gift of a free and democratic constitution of our own making, home grown”.
“I recommend to the people to vote ‘Yes’ in the constitution referendum, because the Constitution which we are debating today and which is before the people, I say that it is better by far than the current one which exists,” Dr. Gonsalves said.
“And, it is, by far, the best Constitution of its kind. That is to say, of a parliamentary kind, that is available anywhere, any place in this world.
“That one or other citizen may wish to see this or that amendment, but I say to the citizens of this country, do not in constitution-making fall into the error of absolutism and so make perfection the enemy of the good.
“What we have sought to do is to make more perfect our Constitution. That is not to say that we have made it perfect, because the only place that we will have perfection, whether in constitution-making or in life, is on the other side of eternity when we all enter Beulah land.”
But the People’s Movement for Change (PMC), a socio-political organisation here has called for a postponement of the referendum vote to within a year after the next general elections, due by December 2010.
The group said in a statement that “the years of effort and scarce financial resources expended so far can be saved if the referendum is depoliticized”.
It suggested that Vincentians vote on the proposed new Constitution “at a time when both major parties will have the opportunity to think in the national interest rather than from a partisan vantage point”.