The call for referenda is not about democracy

Friday, June 15, 2018

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Dear Editor,

As the abortion debate is continued within the public domain, I have heard, once again, calls for a referendum to decide on changes to ordinary legislation. I find this both curious and sinister as referenda seem to be the go-to suggestion for all controversial law reform so that a vociferous majority can bind the rights of a vulnerable minority.

Let's be clear, the constitution only requires the use of referenda for what constitutional scholars call “deeply entrenched” provisions of the constitution, which include the provision stating that The Queen (Elizabeth II) is our Head of State. This referendum would come at the back end of months of debate in Parliament, voting in both the Lower House and Upper House with at least 42 votes in favour of such a change in the House of Representatives and 14 votes in favour in the Senate. Outside of this, referenda are generally not necessary to make major changes to laws.

We should be thankful that section 49 of the constitution does not require referenda more often because such measures are expensive.

We have only had one in our history which resulted in our decision to leave the West Indies Federation in 1961. With such low voter turnout for general elections and local government elections, what is the value of wasting money on a referendum when there are other ways of engaging the public on these issues of law reform, like town hall meetings and joint select committees of Parliament?

It seems to me that people who clamour for referenda are banking on the “Christian majority” to drown out the voices of women who wish to terminate pregnancies. The call for referenda is not about democracy. If it were, why has no one asked for a referendum on the yearly law on taxes?

Glenroy Murray

Associate director, programmes & advocacy

Equality for All Foundation Jamaica Ltd

glenroy.am.murray@gmail.com

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