Gov’t must ignore the Opposition and move full speed ahead with constitutional reform
The Government has set up a bipartisan constitutional committee to begin the work of ending the country’s long and sordid commitment to the British monarchy.
An invitation to join the committee was extended to the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP), but they have refused to join. Opposition Leader Mark Golding stated that the Government did not present answers to various concerns the PNP had regarding the agenda items to be discussed. He does not want to be hoodwinked (my word) into joining a committee of whose agenda he is not aware.
Let us be clear that the invitation to the PNP is just that, an invitation. The Government is under no constitutional obligation to include them, or any group for that matter, on this important committee. But out of an abundance of caution and in the spirit of bipartisanship it has decided to do so given the very fragile nature of Jamaican politics and the bellicosity which so often defines it. It is prudent that His Majesty’s loyal Opposition should have a seat at the table, given the grave matters to be discussed. But, again, there is no judicial compulsion that they should be so involved.
Two concerns leap out at me here. One cannot understand why the full contents of agenda items should be on public display before the first meeting of a committee is held. You can bet that if the PNP gets hold of these items there will be full discussion of them in the public square. This could scuttle and undermine any deliberation before the first meeting is held. This is not to say that the public is not entitled to know what is being addressed, but there is a process to be engaged and you do not want to run ahead of the process.
The PNP, as a matter of principle, should send its representatives to the committee at which they, like all members on it, will be fully appraised of the agenda items, then they can oppose and object to items as they wish. If the agenda is comprised of items on which they disagree, then they could also vote with their feet and leave the meeting or discontinue their membership on the committee. This is not anything new. If they fail to accept the invitation, the Government must not allow itself to be held hostage by their impetuosity. It should get on with the business of the committee and allow the PNP to star in the role they seem to love so much in the “Left Behind” series.
Second, not only is the PNP fighting the invitation, but they have introduced the twinning of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) with the monarchical discussions as a reason to join or not. This is a specious argument. The PNP should know that this is a separate matter which should not be allowed to degrade the weightier matter of a referendum to address the deeply entrenched clause of the abolition of the monarchy. This matter should not be complicated by any discussion of our final appellate jurisdiction. It would unnecessarily detain the work of the committee by a superfluity of arguments that could very well derail the main reason why the committee was established in the first place. Knowing politicians, you would have interminable discussions along party lines — as discussions about the CCJ have already proven — and at the end of the day we would be no further along the road to resolving the issue.
The clock is ticking and we do not have time to waste. We have wasted too much already. Readers of this column are quite aware of my position on the CCJ. I agree with the Opposition and those who believe that we should proceed with ending our judicial relationship with the UK Privy Council. It is one of those things which should have been concluded not long after we gained Independence. But we dithered with the consummate belief, it would appear, that we did not have it within us to practice justice fairly unless we were tied to the navel string of our colonial masters.
But, as I have argued in this space, I find it equally compelling that if we are going to repatriate our judicial sovereignty, we should not do so and then locate it in a halfway house in Trinidad, Barbados, or any other Caricom jurisdiction for that matter. Let us bring it home to Jamaica. That is what I would call full sovereignty over our judicial affairs. But I hear the cry, we are not ready yet, there is a great deal of work to be done in cleaning up our justice system before we dare go on our own. I hear the argument but I am not swayed by it. For too long we have used economic argument to dismiss projects of grave national importance while spending vast sums to promote partisan and unworkable ones. So I ask the question: If not now, when?
There are serious problems to be ironed out in the justice system, but that should not militate against us working at them while seeking to preserve, promote, and uphold our judicial sovereignty. Furthermore, there is no question as to the judicial temperament and professionalism of our jurists and legal practitioners who operate at the highest levels of the judicial system in Jamaica.
The courts tend to dispense justice as equitably as possible in a politically polarised society. It has been estimated that around 80 per cent of the cases that end up before the Privy Council are upheld by the Law Lords. What does this say? If they can uphold these judgements, then it says a great deal about the eminence of the judgements handed down in our courts, and that the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court are staffed with professionals who do their work seriously without the feared political manipulation or favouritism.
I frankly believe we wasted money in our undue haste to establish the CCJ at a time when the population showed little interest in it. The P J Patterson Administration meant well but, in my view, in the end it became a mere legacy project of that Administration, which had to be done at all costs. Thus, the matter was approached without the requisite ventilation in the public square. It never percolated into the consciousness of the population.
Let us now have the discussion without the matter being encumbered by other considerations, such as giving King Charles III the boot. Let us have faith in our people and improve the resources and infrastructure of our justice system so we can create a system of which we can all be proud. Bring our appellate jurisdiction fully home. We can do it.
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books Finding Peace in the Midst of Life’s Storm; Your Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life; and Beyond Petulance: Republican Politics and the Future of America. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.