The present and pending constitutional review, in the words of one of our sitting members of the House of Assembly, is “unfinished business.” There are a number of issues from the 2006-2007 review, during which I served on the Constitutional Negotiating Committee, that remain outstanding, and when this review is concluded there will likely be other matters unresolved. The Constitution, after all, is a living document that will and must be continually amended to match the ebbs and flows of life in the territory and the increasing needs for an effective governance framework to ensure that the business of the government is effectively administered. The great United States has “the oldest written constitution in use:” It was written in 1787 and ratified in 1788, and it took effect in 1789. Since then, about 12,000 amendments have been proposed, but only 33 were sent to the states for ratification and 27 were ultimately adopted.
A ‘good constitution’
The only thing constant in life is change, and here we are as a territory now seeking to amend parts of the Constitution we adapted in 2007. We are embarking on making it better. Ultimately if we want to “Build a Great Little Nation,” the backbone of this must be a good constitution. It has been said that a good constitution “defines the limits of governmental powers. It makes government accountable to the people by providing for the checks and balances for the exercise of governmental power. It reflects the preferences, values and factual views of the people.”
We must ask ourselves some basic questions. What is it that we really want for our Virgin Islands? Where do we see ourselves five, 10, 20 and 50 years from now? What legacy do we want to bequeath our children? (Our parents and grandparents left us a rich legacy of a God-fearing people and a deep commitment to hold onto the land of our birth.)
Now we must decide what stage we are setting for the next constitutional review, which will impact generations to come. We must be conscious that at the present time we are a dependent territory, which means, among other things, that our Constitution can be amended by an act of her Majesty’s Parliament as was done recently when we had an amendment that allowed us to have two junior ministers. We have to ensure that in the wider discussion of governance, the stage that is set should be one that takes us along a path of our collective choosing.
I submit that if our identity is encased in our destiny, then we must understand who we are and what our inheritance really is. We are a God-fearing people. That much is not in dispute. We are blessed with an extraordinarily beautiful natural environment. That is easily verified on inspection.
We are hard working. We are resilient (lessons from Irma) and we must be continually courageous. It takes courage in today’s world to adhere to the motto imprinted on the US dollar, “In God We Trust.”
In addition, our forefathers would expect us to commit to the protection of our God-given natural resources. However, they would expect much more: that we strive to high ideals, no matter how futuristic they might appear now. Our future economic development is intimately tied to our environment. Its protection, preservation and enhancement must be enshrined in that legal document that empowers our actions, the Constitution.
I was in the room in 2006 and 2007 when we were negotiating the Constitution that we have today. As I recall from those experiences, the process of constitutional review is as important as the substantive outcomes. The public’s involvement is paramount. It is precisely what makes the negotiating legitimate. That involvement forms the basis for the document containing the recommendations that ultimately are the basis for the final negotiations and outcomes with the United Kingdom. The public meetings are important from two main points of view:
- to enrich and provide the substance of the discussion and debates; and
- to demonstrate by the numbers of people attending the meetings that there is a wide and healthy interest in the outcome of the process.
It doesn’t auger well for the negotiations if the meetings are sparsely attended since it begs the question about the overall purpose for the review. This means that every effort must be made to encourage wide public participation to add credence to the territory’s need for the review at this point in time.
We know our objective to amend the existing document to reflect the strides we have made in responsible governance since 2007 and to provide us with the tools to have a greater say in our internal affairs and those external affairs that directly impact the territory’s economy. If we are to get to these ideals, robust public participation is imperative, for the negotiating document will be based on the inputs and recommendations of the public at large.
Fruit of consultations
The public consultative process must end with some realistic recommendations to effect amendments. The negotiations follow a pattern that nothing is agreed until all things are agreed. It is a three-tiered approach that includes low-hanging fruits, medium-hanging fruits and high-hanging fruits, and we want to place ourselves in the best position to succeed at all three levels.
As a specific example, agreeing in the last review that the deputy governor must be a belonger was low-hanging fruit. The issue of the definition of marriage was a medium-hanging fruit. It was ultimately designated in the Constitution that marriage was as defined in the local legislation.
A high-hanging fruit was the establishment of the National Security Council, one of the real major amendments achieved in 2007. The change basically gave the local elected officials a say in national security matters, replacing what used to be known as the “Monday morning meetings,” which no elected official attended. The NSC now consists of the governor as chair, the premier and one other minister appointed after being recommended by the premier, as well as the attorney general and police commissioner as ex officio members. The decisions are by consensus amongst the three members.
Ultimately, every individual “grows up” and takes on a level of independence in their personal affairs. Nationhood has to be the ultimate goal of a maturing country like the VI. Self determination must be on the agenda as a part of our future development. It is a process and a destination to which we must aspire. This is a part of the journey, a part of the building that is being established that will eventually house an independent VI. But it will take lots of work, and it will take time for us to put the structures and mechanisms in place that will ensure our success. At some point in time, our own flag must be raised at the United Nations as we take our place as a grown up.
Our motto is “Vigilate.” Let us be mindful and watchful and play our part in this process at this time. He who fails to prepare can only be prepared to fail. Let us play our part in this relay race. Future generations are counting on our stewardship.