By C. ben-David
The masses have spoken but the elites refuse to listen.
On Nov. 6, the citizens of Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada soundly rejected the entreaties of local and regional leaders to vote “yes” in separate referenda to replace the London-based Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) with the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as their highest appellate court.
In Grenada, of 21,979 ballots cast, just 9,846 (44 per cent) were to adopt the CCJ as the final court of appeal in the second such unsuccessful poll within a two-year period. In Antigua/Barbuda, of 17,743 ballots cast, 8,509 (48 per cent) favoured adoption of the CCJ.
In both countries, a two-thirds majority was required to approve the referenda portion of constitutional amendment.
According to Jomo Thomas, Speaker of the House of Assembly, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG):
“We can be certain [bold added] that the vast majority of those who voted yes to the acceptance of the Caribbean Court of Justice in Antigua and Grenada, did so primarily because Gaston Browne and Keith Mitchell [the Prime Ministers of the two countries, respectively] either led or were perceived to have led the campaign for Grenada and Antigua to move away from the Privy Council. Similarly, those who voted No took their cue from opposition leaders.”
Former president of the CCJ, Sir Dennis Byron, shares this view in arguing that the rejection of the CCJ was because:
“… it seems clear [bold added] that the people would prefer if these efforts were supported by civil society institutions and not the political establishment. One of the problems in our region … is that the civil society institutions have not come forward. They’ve not been exercising any leadership in these discussions so there has been kind of a vacuum and I’m hoping in the aftermath of this you will see more civil society institutions getting the desire or the will to sponsor and support educational activities on matters of this nature.”
Apart from the fact that when people feel obliged to opine that “we can be certain” or that something “seems clear” without presenting any evidence, it is to obscure that their views are patently uncertain and unclear, is that this second-hand opinion was based solely on the suggestion of political pundits in both countries that the referenda was reduced to a political-party vote for the government “yes” position versus the opposition “no” position, a suggestion that distorts both the facts and the outcome, as I show below.
Sir Dennis must also be aware that civil society institutions are weak or otherwise irrelevant in most Commonwealth Caribbean countries because the established political parties have either bought them out with sinecures or otherwise co-opted or marginalised them.
Still, Sir Dennis many not be aware that West Indian people have long sponsored and supported educational activities of their own on this and related matters called “The School of Hard Knocks.”
A little political and referendum history proves that the views of these and other pundits are false or grossly incomplete.
|St. Vincent and the Grenadines constitutional referendum, 2009|
|Invalid or blank votes||449||1.19|
|Registered voters and turnout||97,724||53.48|
The view of many pundits at the time was that such a poor outcome for the ruling regime was a certain sign of the overall rejection of a government that had won the 2005 election with 55 per cent of the votes, and that the referendum decline of 11 per cent would surely translate into electoral defeat in 2010. Of course, that did not happen: the ruling party received 51 per cent of the votes in 2010 thereby retaining power.
The two constitutional referenda in Grenada present better evidence still that party affiliation and referendum support are semi-independent at most.
When the citizens were asked in the 2016 referendum whether they wished to accept the CCJ, only 43 per cent voted “yes.” This referendum was preceded by a 2013 national election that saw the New National Party receive 59 per cent of the popular vote. Likewise, the 2018 referendum was preceded by the New National Party again receiving 59 per cent of the vote which also translated into a landslide political victory.
What the Vincentian and Grenadian experience shows is that voters clearly understand the difference between party support and court approval.
If this were not enough evidence, the outcome on November 6 was far worse than it appears for the “yes” sides when account is also taken of the low registered voter turnout: 28 per cent in Grenada and 34 per cent in Antigua.
Taking this into account, a paltry 12 per cent of eligible voters in Grenada supported abandoning the JCPC; in Antigua and Barbuda, this figure was a lowly 16 per cent.
Simple arithmetic shows that thousands of ruling party supporters either stayed home or voted “no” in the two referenda.
If not party politics, then what explains the decision of Commonwealth citizens to always reject membership in the CCJ (with the exception of Guyana where it is universally believed the vote was rigged in 1978 abolishing future referenda) whenever offered to them?
When people don’t vote in elections or referenda, it is because of either apathy, indifference, or satisfaction with the status quo.
Not so, say some of the same elite pundits who have even accused those supporting retention of the JCPC of being:
“in mental slavery”; “having no pride in who and what they are” “foolish”; “colonialists”; “silly”; “backward”; “dunce”; “selfish” “unpatriotic” “having self-hatred”; “ignorant”; “house nigger”; “loser”; and a host of belittling, insulting, and dismissive terms (Dr. Jacqui C. Quinn, Opposition Senator, Parliament of Antigua and Barbuda).
These views were expressed prior to referendum day and they have continued to be made by some sore losers.
According to Jomo Thomas, the referenda outcomes reflected the “stupidity” of the people and their leaders; Renwick Rose, a commentator and activist in SVG has scolded the people of Antigua/Barbuda and Grenada for being guilty of “collective shame and embarrassment … with their actions in begging to be ruled by others, to be judged by the yardsticks of those who had enslaved them … [and being] steeped in colonial backwardness” (Searchlight newspaper, November 9, 2018); and Sir Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organization of American States, has basically blamed the results on fear, lies, and the ignorance of the electorate.
Unfortunately for those promoting all these nasty, even racist, assertions, there is no actual proof that they exist, let alone explain the outcome. What does exist is lots of evidence by those who actual hold those beliefs as expressed in the media, on the block, and in the rum shops that there exists a deep-seated distrust of, even contempt for, the entire Caribbean political and juridical infrastructure including the police, the party system, the legal establishment, and the courts based on their own experience and those around them.
To be sure, this distrust may be misplaced or exaggerated but it does exist and must be taken seriously by serious commentators because without trust justice can never be seen to be done.
This is the fifth in a series of opinions about Caribbean constitutional reform, with special reference to the Caribbean Court of Justice. The others are listed here.
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected]
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to news.iwitne[email protected].