The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.
by John Beale
David Comissiong says “a Bajan Head of State is long overdue and we should all welcome and support it”. However, the Barbados Prime Minister, as Head of Government is, our de facto Head of State with more power than the President of the United States.
The proposed change to a Republic on November 30, 2021 appears to be a ‘fait accompli’ given the strong and insistent style of our Prime Minister, who with all seats but one in the House of Representatives, and control of the Senate can ensure the constitutional change is made, whatever dissent there may be. Therefore, what is important now is to seize the opportunity to make meaningful and needed constitutional change that will address the overall development of our nation.
The Queen, since 1966, has been our ceremonial/symbolic Head of State. During that time, she has never exercised any power over Barbados and always agreed to the requests of the government of the day.
The removal of the ceremonial Head of State will not have any impact on the decisions, affecting our economic or social development. In the language of businessmen, it basically has no impact on our ‘bottom line’.
Some Bajans argue that any symbols to our colonial past must be removed as confirmation that, as a country, we are free and totally independent.
This idea of being ‘independent’ is frequently employed by politicians to rally people on external issues; but it is very difficult if not impossible for a small and under-resourced country, such as Barbados, to be truly independent in an interdependent world. The presence of the Queen, as a symbolic head of state, does not make us any more or less “independent” by one cent.
Dependence on aid, geopolitical interests of more powerful governments and pressure that is applied through economic and financial sanctions (these days, euphemistically called ‘recommendations’), ensure that we can only exercise the powers of independence at home.
We have no capacity – outside of what we are allowed – to be independent in the global community. We may claim to be ‘friends of all and satellites of none’, but that is simply a rhetorical statement.
It sounds nice, but when the pressure is applied with threats to our financial services and tourism sectors, or by blocking soft loans and access to external financing, we succumb. That has happened from Barrow to Mottley, with no exceptions in between.
The issue before us should not be whether we become a Republic but rather ‘what type of Republic?’ There are different kinds of republics, but there has not been any meaningful discussion with the citizens of Barbados about the kind of republic we should choose, or the benefits of each type.
David Comissiong states that the government “has confirmed that they wish our country to go through an extensive peoplebased “National Constitution” in which we will examine all aspects of our governance structure, with a view to producing a new and much more comprehensive type of Constitution”.
Moreover, he said, that PM Mottley has confirmed that the “national consultative process will COMMENCE in December of this year (2021)”. PM Mottley in her most recent National address indicated that the process will be completed in 12 to 15 months! If that is true, why not postpone the move to a Republic for 18 months and deal with the important issues upfront? Significantly, Comissiong, fails to address the issue that the biggest constitutional change would have occurred, with no consultation whatsoever.
The famous philosopher, Cicero, in 64 BC wrote in his book, “How to win an election”, that there are times when a politician must make promises even though he knows that he will fail to keep or deliver most of them. David Comissiong may have blind faith in the GOB but faith, like hope, is not a guarantee.
When Barbados is turned into a Republic in November 2021, the many serious issues facing the country will receive no meaningful national consultation, and therefore, what results from it will not implement the real changes Barbados needs.
If the government cannot or would not pass legislation for an integrity bill with teeth, it is hard to envisage that it will make constitutional changes.
The GOB had the votes to pass the integrity bill, but four government senators mysteriously or conveniently were absent so that they did not have sufficient votes. Our respected historian, Sir Woodville Marshall, who supports a republican form of government, said that “it is a time for public education”.
He also said that “it is not entirely logical to get the Barbados Head of State before you change the constitution. In other words, you should invert the process.” Many issues need to be fully discussed regarding a Republican form of government including the following:
1. What type of Republic should Bajans select?
2. Should the Head of State be elected by the people for a fixed term or be “selected” by an electoral college of Parliament?
3. Should the President be the executive Head of Government or ceremonial like the Queen?
4. Should there be limitations of the terms of office of an Executive President?
5. If we have a non-executive President, should there be limitations on prime ministerial terms?
6. Should there be more parliamentary oversight and compulsory accountability of the office of Prime Minister?
7. Do we need a Senate when it has no power to reject government spending and borrowing, and if its members do not comply with instructions, they can simply be removed and replaced by more compliant persons?
8. Why is it necessary to have a non-Executive, Ceremonial Head of State? Is it not an opportunity to eliminate this position? It would save a great deal of money.
9. Will the Public Sector be held more accountable, especially as Civil Servants salaries are over $1 billion annually?
10. How can we enshrine in the Constitution that transparent action must be taken on reports of the Auditor- General on pain of removal from office of the finance minister and ministry officials?
The people of this country ought not to be treated like mindless children and corralled into a decision in which they have no say. Let’s have a Republic if we, the people, want it and show that we want it by our votes in a referendum, but, at the same time, let us debate and agree the kind of
Republic we want and the depth of reform of the governmental system to make it more accountable and transparent.
Politicians are interested in being elected and re-elected and that means they have to secure the majority votes of the people. Barbadians should use the politicians’ ambitions to ensure the nation is not pushed into constitutional change that will produce less accountability by the government.
We also have the collective power to insist on it. The only chance Barbados has of getting any meaningful changes implemented is to have them done before the official move to a Republic. By then, the politicians don’t need us. They would already have foisted their will on the nation.
“The people of this country ought not to be treated like mindless children and corralled into a decision in which they have no say.”
John Beale is a former Barbados Ambassador to the USA and the OAS for 7 1/2 years appointed by the DLP and a former Barbados Honorary Consul to Brazil for 10 years appointed by the BLP. He has never joined any political party.