Learn from the past!

POLITICAL scientist and civil society advocate Professor Trevor Munroe is adamant that the present Constitutional Reform Committee, which is to play a lead role in Jamaica’s transition to a republic, seems hell-bent on repeating the mistakes of the body which hammered out Jamaica’s Independence constitution resulting in what he says is today “a not fully democratic system”.

“That colonial approach leads to a system that we have now, that our King is being installed on the throne next week; secondly, a parliamentary system with two-party dominance. The colonial approach in the conversation that led to the formation of our independence constitution which we still have has explicit provisions to ensure that third parties gain little recognition,” Munroe said on Tuesday while speaking at a forum titled ‘A Conversation on the Constitution’ at the Bethel Baptist Church in St Andrew.

“That colonial approach meant that our Independence constitution was made by a committee of 16 — five of whom were not elected — and that committee of 16 drafted, agreed and came to a consensus in a process that was closed to the public, there were no minutes that were made public; the daily release excluded, explicitly and consciously, decisions that were made,” Professor Munroe said.

Noting that the Jamaican public then was only given two weeks to make submissions on what the constitution should have before the period was extended to 30 days, he said those submissions were made with no draft of what the thinking of the committee was, no identification of the issues that would be discussed and decided, and with no educational materials.

Those submissions, he said, eventually had no impact as the fundamental decisions were already made, resulting in the creation of a constitution that is not fully self-ruling.

In a history lesson of sorts, Munroe said a contrasting lesson can be learnt from the later constitutional process which began in 1991.

In that case, the committee comprised 39 persons, only 16 of whom were from the two parties, had 14 different parish forums and distributed educational material.

“They had simple material which explained what the constitution had in it and how it could or could not be changed. They received 129 decisions, their conclusions were put to three joint select committees of Parliament, each of which were open to public representation and there were oral presentations,” Munroe pointed out.

That process, though stalled by three general elections, resulted in the passage of the new Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms in 2011.

Tuesday Munroe said while the charter is “incomplete and inadequate”, it is “a big step over the colonial approach which gave us the Bill of Rights in the Independence constitution”.

According to Munroe, “the lessons we learned is that public education, consultation, participation including the youth and all sectors of our society produces more beneficial results for the people than the colonial approach which produces beneficial results for the minority”.

“The current process that is underway needs to be fundamentally transformed in so far as it does not seem to be learning the lessons of the colonial approach of 1961-1962, in that we do not have any minutes of what was being done, we do not have any ability, there is no live streaming of the meetings that are taking place as happens when ordinary legislation is being passed,” he noted.

“Most of all, there is absolutely no public educational material that can help to inform that very important debate as to whether our president should be elected or not, ceremonial or executive and to that extent I would hope that this initial conversation will ensure that this existing committee learn the lessons of the past that the colonial approach is not going to be in the interest of the Jamaican people and that we want real consultation and that consultation is going to take time which should be tied to a timetable of what is really possible and necessary and not tied to the timetable of any election,” he stated.

Tuesday Kenneth Richards, Roman Catholic archbishop of Kingston and chairman of the Jamaica Council of Churches, in extending welcome, said the reform process must not just be seen as the output of an elite or educated minority.

“A constitution is a protective instrument for every citizen of a nation and for this reason, those of us in this position of responsibility must make sure that we engage the Jamaican populace. So even as the Jamaica Council of Churches begins the conversation at this level and we hope to take it to other areas of this nation, we must ensure that indeed we take it to the grass-roots level,” he told the forum.

“If we fail to do so, we will continue to promote the colonial approach with respect to the organisation and the governance of our people where our people will continue to think that it’s only the big man who must do things for us and not recognise that they have a stake and a role to play and so if we are serious about the conversation that we are beginning here, those of us in the Jamaica Council of Churches and the other stakeholders must find means and strategies by which we take it to the innercity, the far-flung areas, to people on the margins to allow them to be part of the conversation,” Richards said.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness last month named the members of the Constitutional Reform Committee (CRC), which is co-chaired by Minister of Legal and Constitutional Affairs Marlene Malahoo Forte and Ambassador Rocky Meade.

The body will, among other things, be required to assess how the passage of time has impacted the recommendations of the 1995 Joint Select Committee on the Constitutional and Electoral Reform Report. The Government intends to hold a referendum relating to Jamaica’s proposed transition to a republic.

The work will be done in three phases.

The committee held its first public consultation in Montego Bay at the end of April.