Opposition Members of Parliament on Thursday asked Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves to consult the public before pushing through, in the national assembly, a bill that they say would change elements of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Constitution, without the need for a referendum.
The government, however, denied that this is the intention or would be the effect of the Attorney General’s Reference (Constitutional Questions) Bill, 2018.
“This very simple piece of legislation, as you identify it, speaks to matters related to the Constitution of the state,” Member of Parliament for Central Kingstown, St. Clair Leacock, said as Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves was about to present the bill.
“… the bill, as we understand it on this side of the House, speaks to the Constitution and its relationship to the Parliament,” added Leacock, who was acting as Leader of the Opposition, in the absence of Member of Parliament for the Northern Grenadines, Godwin Friday, who had gone to Canada to attend a funeral.
“A number of people have reached us and have made representations of unease on the subject matter and I am raising with the honourable Prime Minister whether it would not be good sense for us to refer the bill to the Bar Association, civil society, just give it a little time for reflection. It has come to us at relatively short notice, less than a week – so that we can make even more informed discussion on the subject matter…”
Leacock, however, said that if that was not the prime minister’s view then opposition lawmakers could engage him in debating the bill.
Joining Leacock in expressing concern was opposition senator, Kay Bacchus-Baptiste.
She said that the opposition leader had said that he had not had a chance to study the bill.
The senator further said that she got her package with the bill two days before Parliament met.
Bacchus-Baptiste, a lawyer, said she has had many calls about the bill and that she supported Leacock’s comments that the draft law touches and concerns the Constitution and that persons might need more time.
The senator said she did not think that it would be wise to go through all three readings of the bill on that day — as the prime minister had proposed — “without giving the public some time to look at it.
“Many persons did not even know of the existence of this bill until maybe today (Thursday) or last night and because of the importance of it and because it touches and concerns the highest law of the land, I also request that because of the short duration that we have had to even look at it, I have not been able to properly study it, that it be given some more time.”
However, Gonsalves said that the bill is one, “in every material particular” that was passed in St. Lucia and has been used by the Court of Appeal before.
“And what we are seeking to do here in this bill is to have the honourable Attorney General make a reference to the court of appeal on any provision of the Constitution which may be referred by him to the Court of Appeal and to have the Court of Appeal say whether that particular provision is constitutional or not.
“It doesn’t change anything in the Constitution. What it does, it aids in the interpretation of the Constitution. This is not anything about the alteration of the constitution.”
The prime minister said that there are provisions in Section 36-37 dealing with the matter of the alteration of the Constitution.
“I don’t want it to be bandied abroad that we are seeking to change anything here in the Constitution. What is being asked is for the Attorney General, on certain matters, to refer the matters to the Court of Appeal for the opinion of the court to hear and consider the reference made, to answer each question so referred and to certify to the attorney general its opinion on each question with the reason for each answer.”
After some further discussion, parliament agreed that the prime minister would present the bill and debate on it would be postponed to the next meeting, scheduled for May 24.