23 May 2011

Turks & Caicos Islanders Reject British-drafted constitution


by Richard Green
fp Turks and Caicos

Frustrated Turks and Caicos Islanders who attended public meetings this week overwhelming rejected nearly all proposed changes to the U.K. overseas territory’s 2006 Constitution, many demanding that no changes be made.

However, it remains to be seen if the new coalition U.K. government will reverse its requirement that a new Constitution be in place before the government is returned to local rule. The current timetable is for the Privy Council to receive a new Constitution for approval in July.

Four representatives from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office got a raucous welcome May 16 from more than 200 people crammed into the Community Fellowship Centre on Leeward Highway on Providenciales.

“Every time I open my mouth, you shout me down,” FCO constitutional advisor Ian Hendry said at one point while trying to answer a question during the nearly four-hour public consultation.

Many speakers from all walks of life vented their frustration over British rule since the 2006 Constitution was suspended in 2009, even some who supported the action. They are upset that the FCO refused to include local politicians and Belongers in negotiations to draft changes to the Constitution, and they question whether public consultation will make any difference.

They are not encouraged by the fact that very few objections and suggestions given to Constitution advisor Kate Sullivan during her consultations made it into the March 4 draft now being considered.

Despite all the cheering, jeering and often off-topic comments and speeches at the Providenciales meeting, the FCO team got the message loud and clear that the people especially oppose increasing the power of the governor, changing the way to obtain Belongership and altering the method of electing members to the House of Assembly.

Some accused the former Gov. Richard Tauwhare and the FCO of being just as responsible for alleged corruption and problems as former ministers now under investigation. They questioned the wisdom of giving more power to governors, who come and go every three years and may not have the country’s best interests at heart.

The 2006 Constitution gave most power to local ministers, requiring the governor to go along with ministers in most cases. After Sir Robin Auld said in his 2009 Commission of Inquiry report that the Constitution need strengthening to prevent future problems, the U.K. government hired Sullivan to revise the 2006 Constitution to do just that.

Hendry negotiated with the former TCI government during the writing of the 2006 Constitution, which he believes is a progressive document that could have led to independence, but he said his marching orders come from the British government.

“Obviously, while the Turks and Caicos Islands are an overseas territory and not an independent state, then the British government can call the shots,” Hendry said.

More power is proposed for the governor “because the U.K. remains responsible for the territory, internationally and constitutionally in terms of answerability to the U.K. Parliament,” he said.

“Please do not overreact and assume that because there are these powers, that they will be used every day of the week,” Hendry said, pointing out that territory governors rarely overrule local governments.

Progressive National Party Leader Clayton Greene was among those at the Provo meeting who asked about the possibility of holding a referendum on changes to the Constitution.

Hendry said there have only been two national referenda in the U.K. and none in the TCI, but that decision would be up to U.K. ministers.

At May 17 meetings on Salt Cay and Grand Turk, Hendry and his team got similar objections.

Grand Turk residents were at times as vocal and boisterous as those on Providenciales, but some of them gave thoughtful criticism and suggestions to the team.

The main concern of a polite, orderly group on Salt Cay was representation — they want a minister from their tiny island of fewer than 100 people. They say they have been overlooked for many years in matters affecting their residents because of a lack of representation.

The proposed new election method would give one representative to each island and nine others elected at large countrywide, answering Salt Cay’s prayers. However, most objected to the complicated compensating voting system proposed for selecting the at-large members.

Hendry explained that the compensating voting system is used in London to elect its mayor and members of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

Sullivan suggested using a mixed system to preserve the current, popular first past the post method to elect island representatives, including Salt Cay, he said. The compensating voting system for countrywide representatives is aimed at preventing one party from getting a large majority of seats with only a narrow margin of victory, which can happen in first past the post elections, he said.

Members of the Middle Caicos community were cordial to the panel, which said it had a productive two and a half hour discussion on similar topics.

While many opposed the suggested voting system, one resident explained the benefits it could offer the smaller communities such as those on Middle Caicos.

“Proportional voting has a large number of positive values in a small community,” she said, noting that during the last election only 52 percent of the electorate elected 13 out of 15 elected members of government. “Forty-eight percent of the electorate was not well represented by two members of government. So I would really ask people to be open to this idea of proportional voting to make sure you understand what it is.”

She said the six island representatives would be “fabulous” because it elects six people to government who are going to do nothing but putting forward what is best for their island.

“This is a radical departure and would add something to the House of Assembly and to the way government functions to help move us away from corruption … doing things under the table.”

FCO Deputy Director of Overseas Territories Helen Nellthorp responded positively, saying, “These are drafts, these are proposals, but these are the sorts of things we would want you to be talking about locally and deciding what you want these governance principles to be.”

After several meetings, the team said it had heard clearly the strong feelings that the draft Constitution has created, and the team will be reporting this quickly and accurately to Overseas Territories Minister Henry Bellingham. “We are already giving consideration to possible changes to the draft to present to the minister,” Nellthorp said.

“We hope everyone will understand that our work and the work of Kate Sullivan has been to ensure that TCI does not return to the difficult times of recent years. We want to work together to help reach the milestones needed to return to elected government.

“We will report faithfully all of these points, and more, back to ministers in London.”

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