TAIPEI, Taiwan: – St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) celebrates 30 years of independence on Tuesday amidst constitution referendum campaigns that promise to further deepen the political divide one year ahead of general elections.
However, Governor General Sir Frederick Ballantyne and the Christian Council were markedly silent on the constitutional reform exercise in their independence messages published in the country’s newspapers on Friday.
Sir James: burn it
Vincentians will on November 25 vote on a revised constitution, which, according to former Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell, should be burnt.
The retired politician, who governed SVG for 17 years, told supporters of the New Democratic Party (NDP), which he founded, that he had spent more time negotiating the trade in bananas than at the constitutional conferences 30 years ago.
He said that while the conferences did not last two days, what the British gave to SVG “was something that had evolved from centuries of thinking, from centuries of experience”.
“The wisdom embodied in that original constitution came about in the evolution of the parliamentary systems. Kings were killed, archbishops’ heads where chopped off and all kinds of things happened to put the rights, as they were, put in that constitution.
“So, do not judge something on the amount of time it takes to write it, or it takes to prepare it,” Sir James said, referring to the seven-year-old reform exercise.
He chided NDP senator Major St. Clair Leacock who had expressed favourable opinions on the constitution during the parliamentary debates in September.
“We voting no and nobody coming to interfere with it when Son Mitchell [is] alive,” Sir James said.
“I want to promise you all that we [are] having a funeral for this constitution. And it will be a modern kind of burial. It will not be going in the ground. It will be a cremation. We [are] going [to] burn it,” he said at a “Vote No” campaign event in Kingstown.
GG: Warrior forgotten
Sir Frederick in his newspaper address paid homage to “Vincentian warriors who gallantly fought against overwhelming odds to free this nation from the bondage of slavery and colonialism”.
The head of state said many of these “warriors” have been forgotten while the names of outstanding politicians seemed to be prominent in the memory of citizens.
Meanwhile, the Christian Council said that independence is a good opportunity to reflect since “neglect of the past impoverishes”.
“Loyalty to the past calls for discernment to recognize what is of permanent value, and then see how it can be translated into terms that will touch contemporary life,” the multi-denominational organization said.
Irksome colonial impositions
But Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves in his address spoke of “three irksome colonial impositions” of the 1979 constitution and called on Vincentians to vote ‘yes’ in the referendum.
Gonsalves spoke of the British monarch, the London-based Privy Council, and the need for a two-thirds majority both in Parliament and in a referendum to alter the constitution.
He said the two-thirds majority was “a draconian requirement” which, the British, up to October 27, 1979, had only imposed on Grenada because of “the bizarre autocrat Eric Gairy”.
“In short, the ‘take-it or leave-it’ imposition by the departing colonialism was a shackle designed to prevent the alteration of a Constitution stuffed with weaknesses, to which the people had not consented at all,” Gonsalves said.
However, Leader of the Opposition and NDP president Arnhim Eustace suggested that Gonsalves and his Unity Labour Party (ULP) administration were not committed to genuine constructional reform.
Eustace said he envisaged a SVG that is “managed by an administration which pays more than lip service to the preamble of the Constitution which recognizes the Supremacy of God in all we do and say”.
The former prime minister said the outcome of the reform exercise would have no significant effect on the state of the country’s economy and standard of living in the near future.
He said that the economy was in recession, citizens continued to lose their jobs, heinous crimes continued, the major financial institution was in trouble, and Vincentians were “losing hope and struggling to survive”.
The seven-year constitutional reform exercise has so far cost taxpayers EC$7m (US$2.6m) in consultation and other fees.
The government has allocated an additional EC$4m (US$1.4m) from the national purse to its “Vote Yes” campaign to try to garner the 66.7 percent votes needed to approve the revised constitution.
No state funds have been allocated to finance the NDP’s “Vote No” campaign and Sir James said that it was “constitutionally improper” to uses tax dollars “to fight one cause on the constitution and not the other”.
Gonsalves will address the nation on Tuesday during the independence parade in Kingstown.
Prime ministers traditionally use the event to announce some special policy or programme or wage increase. However, it is expected that the real pork will come in December when Gonsalves, who is also minister of finance, unveils his budget for next year, an election year.
In the meantime, Gonsalves, in his newspaper address, spoke of the nation’s progress and acknowledged its challenges.
“From our yesterdays we have come with our burdens; to the world of tomorrow we turn with our strengths,” he said, quoting Guyanese poet Martin Carter.