A lesson in constitutional politics

| 03/07/2008

As the dust settles on the government’s decision to postpone the
planned referendum regarding the proposed constitutional changes, the
country now has the opportunity to reflect on the significance of that
move. One thing that emerges from the entire process is that,
regardless of suggestions to the contrary, the constitution is about
politics. The decision not to hold the referendum this month, the
decision to hold it or not to hold in the first place, the contents of
the proposals, the local meetings, the talks with the UK, and the
disagreements with the Opposition – all of it is political.

To suggest that fundamentally altering the balance of power between
the Governor’s office and the elected members, changing the role of
the Attorney General or adopting the principle of ‘one member, one
vote’ is not political is missing the fundamental point.

Had the government adopted the position that its proposals were indeed
political from the start and taken on the challenge of winning the
people over to their view, the entire process may have taken a
different turn. The onus was on government to sell its constitutional
position and convince the electorate why it was proposing the changes.
The game of politics is about persuasion and taking a stand,
attempting to be all things to all people is an impossible goal.
Consensus politics and harmonious coexistence may seem like a nice
idea but it is just not the way that controversial developments in a
society are achieved.

The People’s Progressive Movement (PPM) administration had a mandate
from the country’s, albeit limited, electorate. While it is arguably
an undemocratic system because of the disenfranchisement of such a
large section of the community, under the system, the PPM were voted
in fair and square to carry out their policies.

As such, the government was in a position to draw up proposals,
campaign for their acceptance and then put them to the vote with or
without engagement with the Opposition or the people. In their efforts
to include everyone and, more importantly, trying to please everyone,
they fundamentally failed to win the debate. They did not even
persuade the people that the country even needs to renew its
constitution at all.

The entire process was a demonstration of failure by government to
have the courage of its convictions. Instead of mass consultation we
should have seen leadership and persuasion. The referendum has been
cancelled because the government has seen that it has failed to
generate real debate over constitutional and serious political issues.
It effectively failed to win the people over to any of its proposals,
not necessarily because the political position was flawed but because
they did not define or promote it. The government should not have
feared their proposals but declared and supported them whole heartedly
and then campaigned for popular support in the same way they would
campaign for the party manifesto in a general election.

The commitment instead to a non-political debate failed to generate
the necessary level of consciousness from the people and allowed the
discussion to focus on the distraction of gay marriage and non-
Christian religious influences, none of which needed to have anything
to do with the creation of a modern constitution.

Now that the government has opted to talk to the UK before it holds
the referendum the lesson to learn must surely be that politicians
need to have the courage of their convictions. When they have achieved
a constitutional document that they believe will work for Cayman, and
in order to ensure this process is not derailed again, the PPM must
take the political bull by the horns and sell it to the people. As the
referendum will now be held on the same day as the election there can
no longer be any pretence that this is not a political issue.

Depending on a successful outcome from the UK negotiations, the PPM
can sell the document alongside their 2009 political manifesto. As
there is every possibility that the United Democratic Party, which won
their political battle to undermine the entire idea of renewing the
constitution will again be campaigning for a ‘No’, especially if the
UK agrees to some of the significant changes the PPM has sought, it is
even more imperative that the PPM recognise and embrace the politics
of the process.

Whatever the outcome, this entire process is political and it needs to
be both acknowledged and sold as such. We need to see the PPM
campaigning boldly for the content of their proposals in the way that
the UDP campaigned against the entire process. The Opposition seem to
have been well aware from day one that this was a political game. It’s
now time for the PPM to start playing.

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