GOVERNMENT is blaming the Opposition for holding up the start of the process to ditch the constitutional monarchy and move Jamaica to republic status.
Legal and Constitutional Affairs Minister Marlene Malahoo Forte said on Tuesday that the planned announcement of the membership of the high level committee on constitutional reform by Prime Minister Andrew Holness had to be postponed due to Opposition Leader Mark Golding's delay in naming his side's two appointees to the body.
She signalled, in a statement to the House of Representatives, that the Government is ready to go ahead with discussions towards doing away with the constitutional monarchy and making Jamaica a republic, with or without the participation of the parliamentary Opposition.
Responding to Malahoo Forte's expressions of disappointment, Golding emphasised the Opposition's concerns about a piecemeal approach to the reform. He is insisting on a formal and transparent response from the minister on the aspects of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms that the Government has indicated it will amend. The Opposition leader also re-emphasised his party's concerns about the Privy Council remaining as Jamaica's final court of appeal.
Outlining details of the committee's terms of reference, Malahoo Forte advised that the Government intends to have a referendum early next year on the establishment of a republic and all deeply entrenched provisions of the constitution.
"It will take nine to 12 months, ambitiously, to pass the Bill, then amend the constitution to establish the Republic of Jamaica. Some of what the Opposition leader wishes to have discussed the committee was supposed to help us with. We are ready to go, and it is my hope that we will not be forced to go without the Opposition, but we are ready to go," she stated.
She said indicative timelines have been sent out to the committee and background documents compiled, but pointed out that, regrettably, without the appointment of Opposition members, the committee would not be named in the House on Tuesday, as was intended.
"We consider it unfortunate that the parliamentary Opposition is twinning accession to the appellate jurisdiction of the CCJ [Caribbean Court of Justic] to the move to abolish the constitutional monarchy and establish the Republic of Jamaica. I thought that when they said that we should complete the move, that they meant it. Clearly it was plain talk," Malahoo Forte said.
Golding insisted, however, that the circumstances were not that simple as the legal affairs minister had only last Thursday replied to a letter which he wrote to her in June 2022 requesting information on the intended amendments to the constitution and concerns regarding the Privy Council remaining as Jamaica's final appellate court.
"I've asked the minister to disclose in a full and transparent way the specific changes to the Charter [of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms] which the Government intends to pursue before we embark on the exercising of reviewing. It is not a question that I am refusing to nominate members on the Opposition to sit on this committee, but I am asking, and I expect to receive the clarity, transparency, and disclosure that we want, and that the Jamaican people deserve, as to where the Government intends to go on these important matters," Golding stated.
He pointed out that there may be non-legal issues, such as matters of principle, which affect the political system and democracy that require resolving outside of the committee: "I expect a response, giving the information which we have reasonably required, and I hope that reply won't take another six months. It's not that we are unwilling, but we want to do so with a full understanding of the direction that you intend to take us."
But Malahoo Forte contended that the purpose of the committee is to trash out differences and ensure that the perspectives of the parliamentary Opposition are included. "What I'm hearing is that, unless you do it the way we want to do it, we are not prepared to go along with itâ€¦you won't know what issues we are seeking to address unless we sit down and look at them. Why hold up something that you don't need the referendum for, instead of going forward while we work out the differences," she said.
Malahoo Forte told the House that the committee would also help to build consensus in areas in which it has been eroded or is non-existent on important matters related to the process.
The committee will provide advice on the steps to be taken towards further implementing the recommendations of the 1995 Joint Select Committee on Constitutional and Electoral Reform and assess how the passage of time has impacted those recommendations. Malahoo Forte noted that it will also advise on fresh perspectives that should be considered in the light of national, regional, or international developments since the 1990s and recommend necessary modification to update the recommendations for implementation.
The committee will also examine the recommendations on the establishment of a president and advise on the nature, qualification, tenure of the people who hold that office, and the ceremonial powers. She explained that phase two, which follows the referendum phase of the process, will involve the wording and provisions of the charter, while the third phase will involve a full assessment of the country's legal and constitutional infrastructure in order to facilitate drafting of the new constitution.