November 27, 2012
CAPTION - NASSAU, The Bahamas - Dr. Hubert Minnis, leader of the Opposition Free National Movement appeared before the Constitutional Commission on Friday 23rd November 2012 to share the views of his party on possible amendments to the Indepenence Constitution. Dr. Minnis is pictured fourth from left in the front row in the lobby of the British Colonial Hotel, #1 Bay Street. (Photo: Elcott Coleby/BIS)
REMARKS OF DR. THE HON. HUBERT A. MINNIS, MP LEADER OF THE FREE NATIONAL MOVEMENT AT THE MEETING OF THE CONSTITUTIONAL COMMISSION
FRIDAY 23rd NOVEMBER, 2012
Mr. Sean McWeeney, Chairman of the Constitutional Commission, other distinguished members of the Commission, members of the Secretariat, ladies and gentlemen, good morning. I wish to thank the Commission for inviting me to address you in order to give some indication of the policy considerations which guide the Free National Movement’s approach to Constitutional reform and enhancement.
The Independence Constitution, although a less than perfect document, has served the Bahamian People well for nearly forty years. In considering the need for reform of its obvious imperfections, one is confronted with the struggle between those who see our Constitution as being a static document, liable only to be construed in accordance with a prevailing view of what is taken to have been the ‘original intent’ of the founding fathers and writers of that document. In contrast are those who espouse perhaps a more modern view that any Constitution must have the dynamism of a living document, which is capable of interpretation, re-interpretation and constitutional reform according to the evolving needs of a dynamic and developing social order, and the evolving consciousness of an empowered people.
Somewhere between the inherent conservatism, indeed suspicions, of the former, and the exuberant proposals of the latter, the process of Constitutional reform in The Bahamas has floundered or run aground on the shoals of entrenched opposition on three previous occasions, namely in the initial political reaction to the D’Arcy Ryan Citizenship controversy in the 1970s, the popular rejection of the 2002 Constitutional Referendum, and the institutional apathy which attended the publication of the Adderley/Tynes Commission’s Report “Options for Change” in 2003.
The experience of the Free National Movement government in 2002 strongly indicates to us the need to approach proposed constitutional changes and enhancements conservatively and only to venture forward where there is a clearly-emerged National consensus which is sufficiently strong to overcome the natural political instinct towards an opportunistic seizure of political advantage to the detriment of the advancement of National and social development.
I do not wish to offend anyone but such opportunistic posturing played a decisive role in the defeat of the 2002 Referendum; which opportunism was, unfortunately, greatly assisted by the exuberance of a government which, perhaps over optimistically, tried to do too much, or in the colloquial parlance, ‘bit off more than it could chew’. Bitter experience therefore urges me, in good faith, to strongly urge the Commission to err on the side of caution and to adopt a long term approach in the knowledge that constitutional reform should be incremental and progressive, keeping pace with the broad consensus of society but not seeking to out-pace that consensus. Constitutional reform should also be inclusive and expansive, erring at all times in favour of expanding human rights, equality and dignity, limiting to the extent possible the intrusive powers of the State and the worst aspects of human interaction.
REFORMS FOR CONSIDERATION
The Free National Movement remains fully committed to the essential core of those Constitutional amendments Bills which were the subject of the 2002 Referendum, most particularly Bill No. 78 which sought to provide equal rights to Bahamian women in matters of Citizenship. On this issue the Commission can be assured that the expansion of constitutional equality to Bahamian women would receive our full support, even if prudential residential and/or good faith conditions were to be reserved by a derogation clause which is gender neutral, consistent with the prudential considerations which attended the amendments to the Immigration Act passed by the FNM government to facilitate the granting of resident spousal permits.
The Free National Movement is also committed to reform of those Articles of the Constitution which limit the period of service of Judges, and to the removal of politicians from the consideration of whether or not to extend any period of judicial service, along the lines of the attempted 2002 reforms, as well as the creation of the Constitutional Office of Parliamentary Commissioner, and the creation of an Independent Boundaries Commission.
It is noted that suggestions have been made for more far-reaching reforms to the structure of the judiciary having regard to the fact that the Chief Justice, as the Constitutional Head of the Judiciary, is not the head of the highest resident Court, namely the Court of Appeal. A focused examination of all the implications of such a proposal after more extensive consultations with the judiciary as a whole, the Bahamas Bar Association and the general public would be welcomed.
The question of the elimination of the ‘discrimination’ clause which derogates from Article 26 of the Constitution in matters relating to gambling is a matter of much public commentary and controversy recently, which has been occasioned by the Government’s intention to hold a non-constitutional referendum on local “web shops” and a National Lottery, but not to seek to amend the derogation clause or to seek the public’s views on land-based Casino gambling. The position of the Free National Movement on this issue as well as the specific government initiative is that Bahamian voters must be armed with sufficient empirical expert analysis and information to make an informed choice. The Bahamian people must have the benefit of the most clear, accurate, reliable and impartial information not only of the present factual circumstances of the formal and informal gaming industries in our country, but the exact nature and best estimated impact of any proposed changes, as well as clear and precise information as to exactly what changes the government proposes to make in the event of an approving vote.
It is conceded that there are many other suggested changes made, both in the 2003 Adderley/Tynes Report, and in other suggestions made by public figures. The peril, however, remains of seeking to achieve too much, too quickly. It will be for this Commission, in its conclusions to judge how extensive or far-reaching its recommendations to the Government will be.
We trust that your recommendations will be such that the overwhelming majority of Bahamians can readily embrace, in a spirit of commitment to forging, to the extent possible in the somewhat constricted time period allotted to this Commission, a more perfect Commonwealth. To the extent that this is possible, building on prior experience and the efforts of the previous Constitutional Commission, you can be assured of the support of the Free National Movement.