Antiguans vote on CCJ in referendum early 2017

Government and Opposition call for ‘yes’ vote

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

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ST JOHN’S, Antigua (CMC) — Antigua and Barbuda will vote in a referendum by March 2017 on whether to retain the London-based Privy Council as its final court, even as a former prime minister warned that citizens were not fully educated on the issue.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne, in tabling the Constitutional Referendum Bill 2016 in Parliament yesterday, urged nationals to support the initiative to replace the Privy Council with the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) that was established in 2001 as the region’s final court.


The legislation outlined the procedures to be adopted in staging the referendum, and Browne said a two-thirds majority would be required for the referendum to succeed.


"I have to admit that two-thirds is a tall order. If it was due primarily to representation in the House, clearly we have the two-thirds here.


"But the crafters of the Constitution decided that we must go beyond the two-thirds approval within the Parliament and have two-thirds of the voting population within the country vote ‘yes’ in favour of the CCJ, in order to have that transformational change," Prime Minister Browne told legislators.


Antigua and Barbuda will join Grenada in staging a referendum on the CCJ.


Former Prime Minister Sir Lester Bird, 78, who said he was fortunate to have been at Lancaster House in London when the Antigua and Barbuda Constitution was being discussed, urged "all people who support the (Antigua and Barbuda) Labour Party…to go out and vote in favour of us having our own appellate court.


"I am calling on my people…please go out and vote in favour (of the referendum). We have excellent judges, we have the capacity to be able to make our own judgement without the Englishman having to tell us…and I hope that the people will recognise" the need to complete our Independence gained in 1981.


Sir Lester, who served as prime minister from 1994 to 2004, said he was already observing "cracks in the unanimity that we are trying to establish with the Opposition.


"There are beginning to be cracks and it is most unfortunate that that should be so. I want to make it clear and very pellucid that as far as this is concerned, we need to develop our own final court if we are going to be man-o- man-o," he added.


Sir Lester said regional political stalwarts like his father, Vere Bird Sr, the former Barbados Prime Minister Errol Barrow and the Guyanese former leader Forbes Burnham "did not hesitate…to see the bigger picture" with regards to Caribbean unity.


"This is another seminal moment in the life of the Caribbean and we should not treat it with impunity, and so I am calling upon all the Labour Party representatives and people to go out and vote for the CCJ," Sir Lester added.


But former Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer, who has publicly announced his support for the CCJ, said it was also imperative for there to be much more public education programmes on the CCJ/Privy Council debate so as to allow citizens to make an enlightened decision.


He also warned that the authorities run the risk of the referendum being voted against should it be held this year, as first proposed by the prime minister.


October 27 was originally set as the date for the vote but this was pushed back following recommendations from the Opposition.


"I would not want to be specific on the time limit; we know we want to get there and we want to get there as quickly as possible. I personally would want to get there as quickly as possible.


"However, I am satisfied based on what has been going on that we have work to do still to be able to sensitise and to get the people of Antigua and Barbuda, certainly the majority of the people who matter; it is two-thirds we need to get, and everybody knows that in itself, traditionally speaking, it is a near impossibility.


"So, therefore, it simply means we have to massage this thing. Don’t put any specific time frame on it. We know we want to get there, but let us go out there and do the work," he said, warning about giving the impression that the issue is a done deal.


"For instance, I have been hearing some promos on the radio…and it is clear that…when the things are coming from the National Coordinating Committee as being promoted by the Coordinating Committee with a specific bias, those things do not help.


"I am saying that you need to approach this thing in a manner that you know, look, this is open, people have different views. Let these views contend but over a period of time and with the kind of work that is required by the political directorate and other people in the society who understand and appreciate what we are seeking to do, that you enlighten the people."


Spencer said he supported the arguments put forward by Prime Minister Browne for moving towards the CCJ, "but the point I am making is this: that we have not fully engaged the people of Antigua and Barbuda in a manner that does not suggest, listen, this is what the Government wishes and this may even be what some of the Opposition people wish and whether you like it or not we are going to this referendum and that is it.


"That kind of approach is not going to help. As a matter of fact, my own view is that we ought not to be putting any time frame on this matter," he said. "What we need to do is to do the work that is required by engaging and massaging and talking to the people of Antigua and Barbuda, and let them feel, look that this thing is in their interest," said Spencer.


 

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