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What might have been

By Michael Harris

I was out of the country last week when the Constitution (Amendment) Bill was being debated in the Senate. My schedule was such that not only did I not have time to write my column but I was not able to keep abreast of developments through the online versions of the daily papers.


When finally I was able to go back and read all the reports I had missed of the developments both within and outside of the Parliament, I must confess to being quite surprised by some of what I read. I was not surprised by the outcome of the vote. Once the Government brought the bill to Parliament I expected they would have done what was necessary to assure themselves of its passage through both Houses. But some things did surprise me.

I was surprised by the contribution of my friend, Independent Senator Rolph Balgobin. I read the report of his contribution to the debate with great care and I must confess I still do not understand what he was trying to say. In the end his position seemed to be that he was supporting the bill because those people who had urged him not to support it could not explain to him why they were against it.

I was surprised at the written contributions of another longtime friend, veteran Caribbean journalist Rickey Singh, who seemed to applaud and approve of what he considered to be groundbreaking developments as represented by the provisions of the bill. It seemed that his determination as to the bill’s “groundbreaking’’ nature was occasioned more by the novelty of the provisions rather than the analysis of their potential impact.

In fact this was the source of my biggest surprise of all. For among all the contributions by persons within and outside Parliament which I read, (and obviously I could only read what was carried in the press and even that I am sure I must have missed some) I could find none which posed the critical question to the Government about its introduction of the bill. This was the question posed in Jamaica by then opposition leader Portia Simpson-Miller to then prime minister Bruce Golding, “What malady are you trying to cure?”

I have repeatedly argued that any constitutional reform exercise cannot be approached as if it were a buffet table and a country is free to pick and choose provisions which seem to be novel or nice. A genuine constitutional reform exercise begins, not with the Constitution and what it has or does not have, but with an analysis of the existing political system and an identification of its problems and predicaments.

Such an analysis would identify the problems; would demonstrate why they are indeed problems; would demonstrate that the source of such problems lay in inappropriate or ineffective constitutional provisions and out of all of this propose constitutional changes logically designed to “cure the malady”.

This was the inescapable obligation of the Government in bringing the Constitution (Amendment) Bill to Parliament. It did nothing of the kind. It spoke glibly of deepening the democracy and never once why and how the democracy needed deepening or indeed essayed any definition of what the democracy should look like.

But while the Government did no such thing, it did, for however limited a period of time, present the opportunity for others to make the analysis for and on behalf of the country. The Government failed to do it, the Opposition failed to do it and unfortunately, as far as I could discern from the published reports, the Independent senators also failed to do it.

And, for the edification of Senator Balgobin and others like him, that alone; that failure to locate the proposed provisions of this bill in the context of a comprehensive analysis of the political system, the political culture, and the problems we face with both of these, was reason enough to reject the bill. For the danger is that the population may come to consider that, with the passage of this bill, the issue of constitutional reform is laid to rest, when nothing could be further from the truth.

Of course, that statement itself needs to be explained. In so doing I must acknowledge that even the comprehensive analysis which I argue would need to be the precursor of any attempt at constitutional reform would need to have a precursor of its own. That ultimate precursor is a vision of what the society should be and of how we the people should live.

And that is where the true constitutional debate begins. For without such a vision to inform the analysis it is difficult, if not impossible, to say why one should oppose any particular constitutional proposal, or indeed, why one should support it.
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