By Emmanuel Joseph
As Barbados simultaneously celebrates its 56th Anniversary of Independence and first year as a Parliamentary Republic on November 30, news has come that the journey to a new Constitution will reach a major milestone around this time next year.
The Constitutional Reform Commission (CRC), appointed June 20, this year to advise Government on the formulation of the new document, is aiming to have its recommendations delivered in 2023, in the month the island celebrates another year of being a sovereign nation and its break from the British monarchy.
The delivery of the recommendations would be a tad earlier than required, given that the CRC has been given until December next year to do so.
Until then, the ten-member commission is continuing its work of gathering information from every conceivable interest group, Barbadians at home and abroad, and experts, for consideration.
But why should Barbadians be involved in crafting the new Constitution for the world’s newest republic?
The Chairman of the CRC, retired Court of Appeal Justice Christopher Blackman sought to answer that question by recalling previous attempts at constructing new constitutions by the Cox Commission in 1979 and the Forde Commission in 1998.
“The process of asking people to participate in this exercise, in town hall meetings, ‘have your say’, is more significant and meaningful than what even happened in [the] Cox and Forde [Commissions]. Cox and Forde were largely what I call conceptual issues without any realisation of what is going to happen. The only significant thing that came out of the Cox Commission that was actually carried forward and implemented was a national honours system,” he said.
“And then, 20 years later, [late Prime Minister] Owen Arthur put [Sir Henry] Forde in to look at the whole issue of a republic. But I don’t know if there was any real appetite for a republic…. I am told town hall meetings were very poorly attended; sometimes they were all talking to themselves. They got more feedback from outside of Barbados…. The diaspora’s concerns, if you read the report, were largely about…holding on to their status as dual citizens.”
The retired jurist deemed it very important to craft a new Constitution for a new republic.
“So, the involvement of Barbadians in this process of drafting a Constitution is critical. It is something that all Barbadians bear the responsibility for. And that’s why every Barbadian should participate and not do what I call a cop-out and say ‘what I have to say doesn’t matter’,” he asserted.
The general response by Barbadians to the call to make inputs has so far been reasonable, Justice Blackman said.
He highlighted some of the core issues that have emerged to date through written and oral submissions.
“We have got some that I regard as cerebral…. that are thoughtful and provoking. We have had a number of people that have been speaking on the system of voting. We have had some that speak to the term of an election; there is a lot of that. There are also some that have a lot of interest in sexuality, gay rights, etcetera, and to give more tolerance and protection of them in the system,” the CRC chairman revealed, adding that others are asking the committee to include provisions for an integrity commission, the environment, and third-generation rights.
“Every Barbadian should be involved. Someone said to us last week, which rather irritated me, ‘this is a waste of time’. That’s offensive. That’s offensive in the extreme because nobody, certainly not me as chairman…I have got no memo nowhere telling me ‘this is what it’s to be’ and I don’t think any commissioner has got that.
“So, anybody who puts out an idea that this commission is pappyshow doesn’t really know who the members of the commission [are] and how they take their responsibility,” Justice Blackman declared.
He also recalled reading a newspaper article in which some young people reportedly dismissed the commission as having not done anything to justify them making the effort to meet with the body.
“That pained me,” the retired judge said. “There is no cohesive young people’s organisation that one could go to and talk. None of them are coming to us. We are willing to meet with whoever wants to meet with us. We will go to you. If you have your forums, come to us and talk to us virtually or actually.”
Justice Blackman said that in the early stages of the operations of the commission, more than 30 letters were sent to various organisations in Barbados but up to a few weeks ago, fewer than 15 had responded indicating their desire to talk.
“We sent reminders but there is going to come a point when I am going to say, ‘you know what, who come, come’, and we will then consider those things. But I don’t want anybody later on saying ‘but you never consulted with me’. You had a chance. At some point out there you will hear ‘last call, last bell ringing’,” the commission head served notice.
But there have been some groups coming forward to meet with Justice Blackman and the other nine commissioners who are working jointly to chart a path to a new Constitution – former Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite, former president of the Senate Kerryann Ifill, attorneys-at-law Gregory Nicholls and Sade Jemmott, businessman Christopher De Caires, the Reverend John Rogers, Muslim activist Sulieman Bulbulia, youth activist Khaleel Kothdiwala, and president of the Barbados Secondary Teachers’ Union Mary-Ann Redman.
The commission chairman said the Barbados Association of Retired Persons (BARP) has reached out to the CRC and a session will be held with them in the New Year.
“They said they could host over a thousand people on their Zoom site. The council of the Democratic Labour Party has reached out to us and because of scheduling issues at their end we have moved into the New Year,” he added.
The CRC has also scheduled a meeting with University Women in Development in early 2023.
Commission members have also met with the Anglican Church, the high command of the Barbados Defence Force and the Barbados Police Service, the judiciary, former Prime Minister Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford, and President Dame Sandra Mason.
Justice Blackman also announced that the committee intends to meet with members of the House of Assembly, the Senate and the Thorne Commission on Local Government “and see how they impact and tie back in with us”.
“Those are all things we have booked to do in 2023,” he said. “There is going to be a lot of work that we have to do, certainly by the first four to five months after which we will sit down, deliberate, write and give drafting instructions so that we could come in within the time frame that they have in mind that we have to report by. We have a lot of work to do, but we have a plan and we know what it is we have to do and how to do it. We hope to deliver a Constitution that would be a model for other Caribbean states that would be looking to adopt a republic form of endeavour,” he asserted.
The former High Court judge said the committee has also been provided with a plethora of reading material and references to various constitutions from across the Commonwealth.
On the question of the kind of Constitution he wanted presented to the country, he said: “I hope we can present a Constitution that we can be proud of. I would want that whatever we put in the Constitution that we put the structures necessary to make them work, and we don’t just put them in as concepts.”
“Let’s go back, for example, to a recommendation of the Forde Commission of a Teachers Service Commission. It hasn’t happened and I am not, personally, comfortable in putting things in a document to make it look good and it really isn’t going to happen…to placate whoever wants to be placated that you have done it. What should go in is what should be and not just for the sake of making it look good,” Justice Blackman declared.
He reminded that the commission is an advisory body and while it can give advice “until the cows come home”, the powers that be have to make the decision to take it.
On a personal level, Justice Blackman sought to make it clear he was not considering getting credit as the person driving the process toward a Constitution for the new republic.
“My obligation and concern at this time is to do all that I can in my power to make it happen,” the CRC head pointed out.
He said that between now and the New Year, the commission and the public of Barbados will benefit from lectures and workshops as well as more streamlined thematic town hall meetings where specific areas of the Constitution will be opened for discussion.
The town hall meeting in December will focus on citizenship, while fundamental human rights will be the topic in January 2023, and the Office of the President in February. The theme for March is Parliament, followed by the Cabinet in April and the judiciary and legal system in May. The thematic town hall meetings will end in June with a session highlighting the public service and finance.
Of special importance for the CRC and Barbadians will be the public lecture on December 9, presented by Professor Sumit Bisarya, Head of Constitutional-Building Processes and Head of Mission, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. This will take place at the Henry Fraser Lecture Theatre, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus at 7 p.m.