By Sir Ronald Sanders
The referenda, held individually in Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada, on replacing the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) on November 6, were lost for the same reason that Brexit succeeded in the United Kingdom.
The governing political parties in Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada, like the conservative party of then British Prime Minister David Cameron, took a hands-off approach to the referenda.
In Antigua and Barbuda, apart from the Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, the leadership of the governing party played little or no role in educating its electorate about the issue on which they were required to vote. The result was not only a lack of knowledge, but also a lack of popular interest.
Not surprisingly, therefore, only at the voting centres in Gaston Browne’s constituency, was the count in favour of the CCJ as high as 63%.
This absence of direct involvement by the political leadership of the governing parties created a vacuum, readily filled by those who opposed a constitutional change that would make the CCJ the final court of appeal for civil and criminal matters. The opponents played upon the lack of knowledge by creating fears.
As in Britain, where just over 50% of those who opted to leave the European Union voted on irrelevant, extraneous issues and lies, the same occurred in Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada.
The arguments offered were many. They were deceitful in some cases, and misleading and willfully inaccurate in others. The saying comes to mind that “a lie is not another side of the story; it is just a lie”.
The worst of the statements was an attack on the integrity of the Court, for which there is no basis. Others included claims that the politicians appoint the judges (the judges are appointed by an independent Regional Legal Services Commission); the judges are beholden to the politicians who pay them (the cost of the Court is met from the proceeds of a Trust Fund established in 2005 and independently managed); the judges are cronies of the politicians in government (the CCJ decisions have been more against governments than for them); replenishing the Trust Fund after 13 years will cripple government’s finances (Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada would pay only 2.11% each).
The ruling political parties in both Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada appeared to have fallen prey to the notion that the referendum should be a matter of free choice, left to “the individual conscience” of the voter. They seemed to have forgotten that the worst condition for making a choice or a decision is one in which the facts are not well known and understood.
It was the responsibility of the political leaders of all parties (opposition and government) to educate the electorate of their nations. They didn’t. While the governments didn’t engage in the kind of necessary political campaigning and groundwork, including house-to-house visits offering explanations and answering questions, opposition elements were creating fears and spreading them. The objective was to give the governing party a bloody nose; a reality about which the hierarchy of the governing parties appeared oblivious.
Little wonder then that the voter turnout in both countries was shamefully small, and that the larger number of votes cast was by those who had been made to fear the CCJ.
The political leaders seem to have forgotten that the referendum, which was the beginning of all referenda in the Caribbean, failed in 1962, precisely because of the power of fear and lies, and the wrongful belief that campaigning for a cause was not necessary because its rightness was strong enough.
That referendum, of course, was the Jamaica referendum on the West Indian Federation. Alexander Bustamante campaigned vigorously and won on the created fears that Jamaica would be over-run by the “small islanders” (as it turns out, it is the small islands that have witnessed an influx of Jamaicans), and Jamaican taxpayers would have to pay to keep the other islands alive (history has proved differently). Norman Manley did not campaign effectively, and lost because of his belief in the rightness of the Federation, and saw little need to counter the fears generated by Bustamante.
In each succeeding referendum, wherever held in the Caribbean, the pattern has been the same. Governing parties have neglected the importance of direct political engagement to educate and inform their electorates and to dispel fears manufactured by opposing political parties and other groups with a vested interest.
Just as the 1962 Jamaica referendum determined the Caribbean experience, crumbling the region into small states – each unable to command economic and political attention in a world dominated by the large and powerful – so too have the referenda in Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada injured the region.
What has been injured most is pride and respect for national and Caribbean identity, dignity and self-respect. In Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada, the electorate was misled into believing that by rejecting their own Caribbean court in favour of a court in Britain, they somehow enhanced their own standing.
The worst contributors to this damage to the dignity and identity – the very being of the Caribbean persona – are the political leaders of the opposition parties who either actively told their supporters to vote against the CCJ or pretended to be sitting on the sidelines. They know better. But, for them, the quest for political advantage trumped principle of national honour.
Now it looks like the eight sovereign states of the Caribbean – and their “independent” peoples – will have to wait for the British Privy Council to tell them to go (something that has already been forewarned by Privy Councillors). And what an ignominious way that will be to scurry to the CCJ.
(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the OAS. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are his own)
Remarks and previous commentaries: www.sirronaldsanders.com
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