Leaving British monarch for a native president
Surprising regional debates and calls for referendum
Analysis by Rickey Singh
August 28, 2000
FOR either Trinidad and Tobago or Guyana, the debates elsewhere in the region over moving from a monarchical system of government to that of a presidential model with a native son or daughter as head of state, may come as a surprise.
But the issue is not that simple and clear cut in, for example Barbados, Jamaica or Belize.
Sharply contrasting positions have emerged in Belize and Barbados from recommendations by constitution review commissions on the central issue of changing to a republican system of government.
The development comes at a time of a surprising debate in the region at the dawning of the 21st century on whether this region should part company with a British monarch as symbolic head of state in preference for a presidential system of government with a native head of state.
Belize's "Political Reform Commission" was unable to arrive at a majority recommendation on replacing the British monarch as head of state in favour of an executive presidential model with a Belizean as head of state. The commission's report was submitted earlier this year to Prime Minister Said Musa.
The Constitution Review Commission of Barbados, whose report has been noted by the country's parliament and is currently engaging public debate, has recommended the scuttling of the present monarchical system with the Queen as titular head of state, in favour of a non-executive presidential model with a Barbadian head of state.
The focus in both Belize and Barbados on a monarchical versus republican form of government has come against the background of the ongoing pubic discussions, involving largely academics and social commentators, on the suitability of the existing Westminster parliamentary democratic system, with its traditional "winner-take-all" feature of governance.
The anglophone Caribbean, where political independence first came to Jamaica in August 1962, followed some three weeks later by Trinidad and Tobago, is accustomed to a multi-party parliamentary system of government where the Prime Minister wields enormous power as head of the executive branch of government.
The three distinct systems of democratic government in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are: the dominant monarchical model with the Queen as head of state represented by a native Governor General. Ten of 15 such Commonwealth countries are to be found in CARICOM.
Secondly, the non-executive presidential system, two of which exist in CARICOM - Trinidad and Tobago and Dominica - among 10 such republics in the Commonwealth, where the Prime Minister's powers remain very substantial.
And thirdly, there is the executive presidential model, where significant powers reside in an elected head of state. Guyana is the only such republic in the Caribbean Community but among 21 such states in the 54-member Commonwealth of which the Queen of Britain is the symbolic head.
There seems something curious, certainly not flattering, about our politics and sense of nationalism, that some 38 years after independence two thirds of the Commonwealth nations with a British monarch as head of state are to be found in this region.
And that it remains a region of sharp differences also over the retention of the Privy Council in Britain as our final appellate court, in preference for the proposed Caribbean Court of Justice.
As if, it seems, that in extending the right of a majority of heads of government to act on the recommendation of a Regional Judicial and Legal Services Commission to appoint the President of the CCJ, could be doomsday for judicial independence.
The checks and balances to preserve the independence of the judiciary as a vital arm of democratic government under the Trinidad and Tobago non-executive presidential system as well as that of Dominica were noted by the constitutional review commissions in both Barbados and Belize.
Unable to arrive at a consensus, or even a majority position on a change to a presidential system of government, the Belize commissioners left the issue open without even a suggestion that it be determined at a new general election.
But the Barbadian commissioners were precise in their recommendation for a non-executive President as head of state to replace a British monarch and that he/she be elected by an electoral college comprising both the House of Assembly and Senate.
They did not recommend that the issue be determined at a referendum. Nor does the country's constitution make this a requirement.
In Jamaica, there are strong and influential voices in opposition to either a shift to an executive presidential system, or severing links with the Privy Council without the issues first being determined at a referendum.
As in Barbados, both the governing and opposition parties in Jamaica favour moving towards a republic. But the ruling People's National Party (PNP), which has a decisive two thirds parliamentary majority, favours an executive president while the main opposition Jamaica Labour Party thinks it should be a ceremonial or non-executive head of state.
Eventually, the issue may be settled at what has been termed an "indicative referendum". What will happen on the equally sensitive question of a regional appellate court to replace the Privy Council is another matter.
Prime Minister Percival Patterson has been insisting that he has no intention to refer the CCJ to a referendum, the more so since it is not required by the constitution.
But the JLP's own demand for a referendum finds support from civic groups such as the "Jamaicans for Justice" which also wants permanence for the proposed CCJ by having it entrenched in the constitutions of participating member states, instead of the current provision of a three-year notice for withdrawal.
The chairman of the Barbados Constitution Review Commission, former Attorney General and Foreign Minister, Henry Forde, who also favours termination of access to the Privy Council and the creation of a regional appellate court, has noted in a presentation on "Republican Status and the Caribbean":
"The Caribbean's preference for the non-executive form of republican government can partially be explained by the pragmatic and conservative nature of its peoples."
"The attraction of this form", he explained, "is that it replaces the monarch with an indirectly elected president and simultaneously seeks to retain the existing relationship between the formal head of state and the executive government...Another rationale for it may be the distrust which the public displays towards politicians..."
While both governing and opposition parties in Barbados favour the non-executive presidential system of government, Prime Minister Owen Arthur is sticking with a declaration he first made in 1994 that a change from the existing monarchical model would have to be determined by a referendum.
He said soon, but it is doubtful whether there will be any rush to settle the issue. And, as is also likely to be the experience in Jamaica, a referendum on replacing the monarchical model for a presidential system - executive or non-executive - may come with new general elections.
For the University of the West Indies professor of law, Simeon C. McIntosh, a frequent contributor to the media on constitutional matters, the debate over whether Caribbean states should become republics or remain monarchies should be "recast".
The question rather, he articulates in a paper on "Constitutional Monarchy: A Noble Lie", should be "whether it is politic that a foreign subject, albeit the monarch of Britain, should continue to be our head of state".
McIntosh feels "this seeming obsession with the British Crown and our obvious reluctance to let it go might approximately be explained in (Vidia) Naipaulian terms as a form of mimicry, a mark of the awful damage wrought by colonialism. This kind of mimicry fills me with despair, for it stands not only as a reminder of colonialism but also as an acceptance of it..."
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