Government feature reviews constitutional history

| 05/11/2009

(CNS): In the final part of the government’s review of what changes the people of the Cayman Islands can expect as a result of the implementation of the new constitution, GIS reviews the journey the islands have taken since 1831. The constitution will come into effect tomorrow 6 November however, there are still legislative changes to be made to made the statute books compatible and a number of new committees to be established.

(GIS): The adoption of the 2009 Cayman Islands Constitution, introduces a new era for our country and our people. This revised document lays down fresh instructions for all three branches of government and introduces a Bill of Rights that will guarantee basic freedoms and human rights for al. As such, Cayman’s citizens will experience a new rapport with their elected officials and there will be a different dynamic between the country and the UK.

Accordingly, this fourth and final feature explores the significance of the new Constitution by taking a look at the Islands’ constitutional history and highlighting the new relationships this document brings.

Cayman’s road to constitutional democracy has been long and colourful, with much support given to the principles of freedom. Seventeenth century residents sought active participation in their government, demanding equality and local representation.

Thus in 1831 Caymanians first asserted the right to elect their own representatives, known as Vestrymen. However, the country’s political status remained uncertain until 22 June, 1863 saw the declaration of Cayman as a British Crown Colony.  Two years later the Islands were recognized as a full dependency of Jamaica.

The status quo remained unchanged until the mid-twentieth century, when Cayman’s ties to Jamaica (then lobbying for independence from the United Kingdom) came into question.

In 1955, six local assemblymen petitioned the UK’s Colonial Secretary through the Governor of Jamaica, requesting the right to determine our own destiny.  A series of conferences followed, after which on July 4, 1959, Cayman received the first written Constitution by Royal Order-in-Council. That was accompanied by universal adult suffrage, the right to vote and hold office.

A subsequent constitutional review resulted in the introduction of a new document in 1972. Periodic constitutional talks continued, leading to the modernization initiative and the current inauguration.

  Previous constitutions served us well during the developing years. However, contemporary Cayman has little in common with the three peaceful and little known outposts of before.

The latest modernisation effort has therefore been a process which evolved over

more than a decade. A revised Constitution was drafted in 1992, but not passed. Another attempt in 2001 set the groundwork for future modernisations, and in 2007 a Constitutional Review Secretariat was formed to steer the initiative and take it forward.

A phased plan was devised and included research, public consultation, negotiation, and a first-ever national referendum. The first research phase identified areas of possible reform, and sought input from everyone, from grassroots to executive levels.

Public consultation comprised the second phase and during several rounds of district town-hall meetings the Secretariat received input and explained constitutional issues, options and implications. All proposals and suggestions were assessed for feasibility and many were factored into the final document.

A proposed Constitution document was then presented in the Legislative Assembly. It was reviewed and debated by elected representatives, before they unanimously passed it. 

The next phase involved final negotiations and then agreement with the United Kingdom. Constitutional talks between Cayman and the Foreign Commonwealth Office were held between September 2008 and February 2009, with the outcome being the 2009 Draft Constitution. The Elections Office then prepared for Cayman’s first referendum.

That historic event would determine whether or not the people would find the draft Constitution acceptable. On 20 May 2009, of 15,361 eligible registered voters, 12,287 participated in the general elections.  Most (11,244) also voted in the simultaneous referendum and a 62.66% majority decided in favour of the modernized Constitution.

With that, the local process was complete, and the document was forwarded to the UK for final consideration.  Then on 10 June, the Cayman Islands Constitution Order 2009 was made an Order in Council at the Court at Buckingham Palace by the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty in Council (Privy Council).

Importantly, the adoption of the new Constitution will also reshape the relationship with the UK; in future, Cayman may independently enter into international agreements which don’t directly affect the UK. This will show the world that the Islands can self-represent in certain key international venues and take major decisions.

Thewinding road to modernization had involved numerous people, meetings, debates and discussions, making it a truly democratic and transparent – albeit lengthy – process.

Attention to detail also proved a critical element for, as the supreme law, the Constitution unifies the country, enshrines the fundamental principles under which it is governed and maintains the delicate balance of power necessary to preserve democracy.  

In the Cayman Islands as in many democracies, the Constitution is superior to all other laws, serving as the ultimate protection for the people, while defining both lines of authority and rules for government.

 Thus, while the Executive branch – the Premier and Ministers – makes policy, the Legislature in its entirety makes laws, approves budgets and monitors government. An independent Judiciary interprets those laws and administers justice, while the civil service (the administrative branch) implements both laws and policies.

In short, the adoption of the 2009 Constitution begins a new chapter in Cayman’s governance, with adjustments to roles, responsibilities, and functions of elected and public officials. These changes will allow better representation for the people while exacting higher standards of accountability from leaders.

But while there are many changes, some things will remain. Most significantly, the UK’s ’Westminster System’ of parliamentary government continues. The Governor (and thus the UK) retains ultimate responsibility for the Islands’ defence and external affairs. The civil service and judiciary also remain independent under the Governor.

Ultimate executive authority remains with Her Majesty, but issues will continue to be debated and negotiated between local government and the Crown.

With more democratic, efficient and accountable local government, the new Constitution will thus bring more self-determination for Cayman. Some changes will be immediate while others such as the Bill of Rights will take time to implement.

The 2009 Constitution certainly affords government greater participation and accountability in managing internal security and the police, via the new National Security Council. This will enhance cooperation in these areas between the Governor, the Police Commissioner and Cabinet.

Looking forward, we can expect to see how this new Constitution will reinforce the principles of democracy, so long cherished by the people of the Cayman Islands.

Tomorrow’s observances are important in their own right, but they are even more significant as symbols commemorating the people’s success in modernizing the Constitution of the Cayman Islands. It stands tall as a textbook example of the highest exercise in democracy.

For more information on the process, and to review the new document, visit a local library or the official constitution website:

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