Did you say Iceland?
An interesting thing is happening in Iceland, of all places, that we in BaHAMaland could learn a lot from. Yes, I said Iceland. The government of that country decided last year that it was time to revisit the nation’s constitution. And ordinary citizens were given the opportunity to be voted into a Constitutional Assembly by the general population.
According to a November 26, 2010 Associated Press story,”Iceland has never written its own constitution. After gaining independence from Denmark in 1944, it took the Danish constitution, amended a few clauses to state that it was now an independent republic, and substituted the word’president’for’king.’A comprehensive review of the constitution has been on the agenda ever since.”
“Pressure mounted for action after the nation’s economic collapse in 2008, an event punctuated by ordinary citizens gathering outside the Althingi, the parliament, banging pots, pans and barrels–a loud, clanging expression of fury. The meltdown was seen not only as a failure of the economy but of the system of government and regulatory agencies. Many came to believe a tighter constitutional framework–including a clearer division of powers–might have been able to minimize that damage, or even prevent it.”
The AP story went on to quote Iceland’s Prime Minister, who supports this initiative:”It is very important for ordinary citizens, who have no direct interest in maintaining the status quo, to take part in a constitutional review,”said Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir.”We are hoping this new constitution will be a new social covenant leading to reconstruction and reconciliation, and for that to happen, the entire nation needs to be involved.”
So the remarkable thing is not so much that Icelanders are reviewing their constitution but that the process is more open than any I’ve ever heard of. The framers of the new document are not hand picked heavies from the major political parties. Rather, any ordinary citizen was allowed to present a case to the nation as to why they should be one of the 25 Assembly members and then the nation chose who they wanted. Turnout for the vote was actually low but over 500 people offered themselves for the noble task. Professors, lawyers, doctors, commentators, managers, school teachers, filmmakers, dramatists, students, union leaders were represented among those who gained the most votes. Their work begins this February.
Of course, here in the English speaking Caribbean, we didn’t really write our constitutions either. We had our constitutions handed to us with minor changes. Some PLPs and some PLP opponents flew up to London and accepted what their colonial masters produced: a generic constitution that all the British colonies received. And after nearly 40 years as a nation, I think it’s safe to say that the need for change is painfully obvious.
Twelve years after it became independent from Great Britain, Trinidad found itself in political turmoil and struck a commission to explore constitutional change. The 1974 Wooding Commission report concluded that:
“In reality the Westminster political system has a propensity to become transformed into dictatorship then transplanted[to]societies without political cultures which support its operative conventions. The underlying principle of the Westminster system is that the party which controls the majority in Parliament following an election is invited to form the Government.
“The person who is leader of the majority party becomes Prime Minister and head of the Cabinet. He chooses his Cabinet colleagues and junior ministers and he can dismiss them at will. He also allocates the portfolios for which they are responsible.
“Once Cabinet decides on a policy, it can easily be translated into law through the use of the party’s majority in Parliament. In the 18th and 19th centuries, governments were defeated in Parliament. Nowadays, party discipline rarely breaks down . . . Under contemporary conditions the Executive in the Westminster model is so powerful that it has been referred to as a Cabinet dictatorship. Some observers even claim that it is not really the Cabinet, which is dominant, but the Prime Minister himself, assisted by his inner Cabinet, the Cabinet Secretariat and a few individuals who may not even have any formal responsibility in the system.
“The Prime Minister, it is noted, also has wide powers of appointment and dismissal. Further, he has the power to dissolve Parliament when he wishes, the power to appoint and staff Cabinet committees(here in fact a lot of key decisions are taken on behalf of the entire Cabinet), the power to determine who chairs the committee as well as which committee receives what matter for study. He also determines in large part the agenda for Cabinet meetings and his oral summation of Cabinet discussions determines to a large extent what policies are actually adopted on behalf of the Cabinet. As leader of the party in Parliament and in the country, the Prime Minister has at his disposal a powerful instrument of control and influence. Those who cross him or fail to support his policies consistently can hardly expect advancement. They may even be expelled from the party.”
Most of the recommendations of the 1974 Wooding Commission’s report were ignored.
Here in The Bahamas the Christie administration struck a Commission after it cynically sabotaged Hubert Ingraham’s attempt at constitutional reform in 2002. Christie’s Commission was certainly bi-partisan: it was led by Paul Adderley, Harvey Tynes, Michael Barnett and Lester Mortimer. But it was also skewed. There was an over-representation of people over 50, an overrepresentation of lawyers, of pastors and of men(16 to 6). There was also an overrepresentation of politicians. One wonders therefore, whether the end results really can be said to represent the wishes and hopes of a true cross section of the Bahamian people.
To be fair, though, the Commission held meetings all over the country and, before it made any recommendations, published a booklet that was intended to inform the public of some of the alternatives before us. The document,”Options for Change”is thoughtful without being difficult for ordinary people to understand.
The Commission’s recommendations have hardly gotten anywhere near the attention or exposure that the”Options for Change”received. And under Ingraham, the whole matter of constitutional reform has died an inglorious death. No one, I mean no one, is talking about constitutional reform anymore. All the momentum is lost. And to put it bluntly, I am skeptical that any seasoned Bahamian politician who has been partaking of the pleasures of the Westminster’s Executive dictatorship, would cut his/own throat and change the constitution willingly. Ingraham seems to have no appetite for the separation of powers: his House and his Cabinet are practically identical. So do I see Ingraham agreeing to contain the Prime Minister’s powers?Only if the very next day he’ll be stepping down. The same goes for Christie.
We need a popular, grass roots, bottom up push for constitutional change. The 21st century Bahamas needs a 21st century constitution; desperately. If you are playing a game that you simply can’t win, even when you cheat, your only options are to quit or change the rules. We must change the rules,’cause we can’t afford to quit our country, and we can never be as good at cheating as the politicians.
•Ian Strachan is Associate Professor of English at The College of The Bahamas. You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.ianstrachan.wordpress.com.