A need to review the first-past-the-post system of voting, make it easier for citizens to own land, introduce a citizens advice bureau and grant greater freedom for Rastafarians to practice their beliefs are among suggestions from Barbadians ahead of the shift to a republican form of government on November 30.
The recommendations were among several from callers during the first in a series of virtual town hall meetings to discuss a draft “Charter for Barbados”.
The discussion was anchored by a blue-ribbon panel appointed to advise government on the transition, the Republican Status Transition Advisory (RSTAC) Sub-committee on Fundamental Principles, Rights and Freedoms.
The meeting was chaired by the sub-committee’s chair, Chereda Grannum; Co-Chair of the Charter Committee, Senator Rev Dr John Rogers; Coordinator of the RSTAC Legal Support Team and former High Court Judge, Shirley Belle and Advisory Consultant to RSTAC and political scientist Cynthia Barrow-Giles.
One caller drew the panel’s attention to what he saw as a major weakness in the existing Westminster model of parliament, which he argued cannot remain in a new democratic Barbados because it disenfranchises a substantial portion of the electorate.
He said: “In 2018 for example, you had 41,000 persons who voted for an individual who does not currently sit in the House of Assembly. That’s 41,000 Barbadians who I can argue are now disenfranchised. Let me put that into context. You have a representative in Parliament who received less than 2,500 votes. So if 2,500 votes can get you a seat in Parliament, how at the same end now are we disenfranchising 41,000? These are some of the questions that we have to ask.
“The question then becomes, how is this reflective of a democracy, how is this reflective of a fair democracy. If again we are going to speak about charters, if we are going to speak about democracy for the future, the first thing I would argue that needs to be addressed, would have to be our electoral system.”
Another member of the public said his biggest concern in Article 1 of the draft Charter is the role of Government and suggested the nature of the governance model is weak.
He said: “I believe that we should consider having a section dealing with government and or governance within the Charter itself. Is the Westminster model still relevant to us as we build a contemporary society. Can we as a Caribbean people define our own format of governance and a governance model that is more culturally nuanced to our peculiarities as a people? These are the types of things that we have the capacity to do that we can create maybe a hybrid form of governance.”
A third caller told the panel he would like to see integrity legislation and a citizens’ advice bureau. He said while integrity legislation was “knocking around” for a long time, he would like to see it “figured out” before the country enters “a new phase.”
“And a citizens’ advice bureau which I think could be helpful to most people who are not too certain about a lot of things. Instead of paying big legal fees, a citizens’ advice bureau could be helpful to most people; advice for citizens who would go through the legal system, it is very expensive; and you can set up a citizens’ advice bureau where you don’t have to go and pay a pocketful of money for simple little advice,” he stated.
Another caller who identified himself as the cultural practitioner, Jamal Slocombe, expressed concern about the large number of Barbadians who continue to squat even though the historic Drax Hall Plantation of some 600 acres of land on which their ancestors slaved to develop, remains out of reach.
While Slocombe acknowledged that one could not simply take away a person’s land willy nilly, he is suggesting that a new republican Barbados needs to address issues such as this that would make land much more accessible and affordable for citizens.
“When you look at it [Drax Hall Plantation] from the early 1600s this has been within the same family,” said Slocombe. “This is over 600 acres of land that Barbadian ancestors have been forced to labour on these fields over a period of time. We have so many Barbadians who are still squatting on various lands in Barbados and still not been able to own a piece of the rock.”
He also sought to make a case for the members of the Rastafarian community, who he claims have faced social and economic oppression in Barbados for years, ”by laws that really painted them as convicts and criminals for practising their own religious beliefs through the use of cannabis”.
“So I believe, if we are going to take this step for a republic, one thing we need to consider is to provide reparatory justice for the Rastafarian community as well,” said Slocombe. “I think there needs to be some form of a policy prescription that allows the Rastafarian community to be able to practice their religious beliefs with some level of freedom.”
The ultimate goal of the town hall meetings, according to co-moderator and veteran broadcaster Julian Rogers, is to lay the foundation for a much broader form of consultation on changes to the Constitution of Barbados.
The other virtual town hall meetings will be on Saturday, October 2, Monday, October 4 and Wednesday, October 6.
Afterwards, there will be a briefing with the Republican Status Transition Advisory Committee which pulls together all of the contributions presented by members of the public.
The other moderator was another veteran media practitioner and broadcaster, Dr Allyson Leacock. (EJ)