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Holness defends call for grand referendum

BY BALFORD HENRY Senior staff reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, May 08, 2014    

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OPPOSITION Leader Andrew Holness says that his call for a grand referendum, to settle outstanding national issues, is geared at bringing finality to the matters involved.

In his recent budget speech, the Jamaica Labour Party leader suggested that the Government could resolve a number of key national issues by allowing the people to decide in a grand referendum next year. The issues include the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) as Jamaica's final appeal court; liberalisation of ganja laws; review of the buggery law; and having the Queen of England as the head of State.

"There is an election due some time next year: Why not make arrangements to have a grand referendum at that time," the Opposition leader suggested then.

Last Thursday Holness reinforced his call, explaining to a Jamaica Observer Press Club forum at the newspaper's Beechwood Avenue office in Kingston, that a conscience vote in Parliament would not resolve them, and only a referendum — which would involve structured public discourse — would ensure that the people have a voice.

Explaining the reasoning behind his call, Holness said that how the democracy normally works is for the political parties to take positions on these issues and put them to a vote in Parliament. However, he said that in these cases none of the two major political parties have been able to come up with distinctive political positions, except in the case of the CCJ.

He used as an example, the different positions expressed by Opposition backbenchers Raymond Pryce and Dr Dayton Campbell in the recent debate in the House of Representatives on legalising the use of small quantities of ganja.

"It is the same thing in the JLP. There are two distinct positions on legalising the use of marijuana. So, it's not something that I could say, we are going to Parliament with this position. It's the same thing with hanging (which should have been resolved by a conscience vote more than a decade ago)," he said.

"What happens when you go to a conscience vote, which effectively releases the MP (member of Parliament) from not just the party whip, but also from his constituents, because he can now vote his conscience? But, they are critical issues which the people really should decide," he stated.

"Same thing with the Buggery Act: You have different views. You can't get a party whip. It's the same thing in the PNP. So let the people decide," he argued.

He said, however, that it was not an application to just say let the people decide, then hold a referendum and demand that the government carry through the mandate, immediately.

"You can't go to a referendum without a dedicated, structured public discourse and consultations, which would elevate public understanding of the issues. That's the real purpose behind the suggestion: To get structured discourse and bring some kind of finality," he stated.

He pointed out this would be an indicative referendum, in which the Government, having heard the position of the people, would be allowed time to put in place the structures needed to implement that position.

He said that even with the issue of replacing the Queen as the head of State, there were serious divisions which needed to be clarified.

"Where is the public education which is structured to bring us to account? I am saying, let's take on these issues, frontally," he commented. "It's not a waste of time either, if you have a government which understands the social issues and sees how these social issues affect the broader modernisation of the society."

Holness said that the JLP could not accept that a conscience vote would settle all these issues, especially in the case of the CCJ where the party has given its reasons for the need for the country to make that decision through and poll, which the Government is against.

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