How many Barbadians have ever seen a copy, or thoroughly read the contents of the Constitution Of Barbados? Not an exceptionally great number, we reckon, except for persons who have either studied politics and government or law. As a result, quite a large percentage of the population probably has no familiarity with the various provisions establishing our rights and freedoms, and the general framework under which we are governed and live.
Compared with the United States, for example, where the constitution there enjoys a high level of visibility and ordinary citizens easily refer to its various provisions in public debate, especially in relation to their rights and freedoms, the Constitution Of Barbados, despite being the country’s most important legal document, largely remains unfamiliar to the average Barbadian.
In this our 50th year of Independence, this general lack of public awareness of the Constitution is an issue which needs to be addressed as Independence and the Constitution go hand in hand. The Constitution, which was introduced on the date of our Independence from Britain, is the fundamental law of the land.
It governs the relationship between Government and the governed. Familiarity with its provisions is essential for effective citizenship and participation in our democracy.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful gesture if Government, as a special 50th Independence anniversary initiative, were to take the lead in launching a campaign promoting greater constitutional awareness, including printing several thousand copies for distribution, especially in our schools?
If this production is too costly, given existing public financing challenges, copies could alternatively be made available for a nominal fee to ensure everyone could afford to obtain one.
The 50th anniversary of Independence coincides with a growing public debate on the need to improve certain aspects of our governance to reflect current 21st century reality. When the present arrangements were introduced back in 1966, the needs of Barbadians were fundamentally different. In fact, Barbadians back then generally took little interest in issues of governance and democracy, except in voting for a Government of their choice every five years.
A lot has changed since then. Because of an improved level of education and greater exposure to what is happening around the world, thanks to globalization, Barbadians today are more conscious of their rights and freedoms. Whereas our foreparents back in 1966 were quite happy leaving such matters to the politicians, Barbadians today are clamouring for a greater say in the country’s governance beyond the five-minute exercise of voting in a general election.
By now, most Barbadians resident on the island may have received a personal letter from Prime Minister Freundel Stuart inviting their participation in the 50th Independence Anniversary Celebrations. In the letter, he speaks of the need to “continue to make the transition to real independence”. He also says: “We must take the lead in shaping our own future.”
Greater public familiarity with the Constitution, as the overarching framework of the Barbadian experience, is integral to the success of this undertaking.
In our view, the golden jubilee year represents an opportune occasion for revisiting the issue of Constitutional reform, especially in light of the Prime Minister’s stated plan to do away with the current monarchial system of Government and switch to a republican form.
At the time Mr Stuart made the announcement, he identified the 50th Independence anniversary as the timeline for making the switch. There should be extensive and robust public debate before this occurs. Better yet, the plan should be put to a referendum in the true spirit of democracy.
It would be a wonderful idea if Government could facilitate a high-level conference on the Barbados Constitution as a key 50th anniversary event. It would look at how the Constitution has worked over the last 50 years and what could be improved as Barbados looks ahead.
Previous reviews of the Constitution should be considered, and interest groups, representative of the broad population, should be invited to participate.
This way, a clearer picture of public opinion could emerge on what is necessary to improve Barbadian democracy and governance. Interestingly enough, the Constitution has received no significant mention in the context of the 50th Independence anniversary so far.
It is too important an issue to be overlooked and needs to be placed on the front burner to stimulate public interest and debate.
May the debate begin!