Tuesday, April 16, 2024

EDITORIAL: The public needs to know

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For the past three months, ever since the Prime Minister indicated that he was going abroad for medical treatment, issues touching and concerning the Barbados Constitution and the political system have been Front Page news. Yet even as this was taking place it has become clear that the vast majority of our citizens and voters are unaware of even the most basic contents of a document that has been designed to protect citizens.
Whether the issue was about the role of an Acting Prime Minister carrying out the “devolved” functions of the incumbent Prime Minister or questions about who should or should not be speaking for the Ministry of Finance; or about the status of the office of Attorney General, the public has been bombarded and confronted with news and views about the workings of our political and constitutional system.
This general lack of knowledge has led some hosts of the call-in programmes to appeal to those who know about these things to call and explain for the public benefit how a particular, situation is dealt with in the Constitution, and quite often there has been a quick response. Sometimes absent such a response a great deal of guessing and “fireside” lawyering takes place and the public is misinformed.
But this need not be so. This country has been independent for close to 44 years, and there should be a more widespread understanding of the basic outlines of the document that provides protection for all Barbadians and visitors who happen to be on this island and temporarily under the jurisdiction.
This widespread distribution of knowledge about the Constitution cannot come about solely through education in the schools since there are generations of Barbadians alive who would not have been introduced to the learning when at school, and who remain for the most part innocent of  their most basic constitutional rights.
Yet many of these same people are as knowledgeable about the game of cricket as some of our greatest umpires, and that is why there is such a vibrant public opinion about the vagaries of the game. It is also the reason so many of them used to follow the game. They understood its rules; if they did not, they would not follow it.
There is a popular perception that the Constitution is a matter only for politicians, but nothing could be farther from the reality. True, it may be, that politicians may be specially interested in the document, but when and if a law is passed to confiscate cellphones from schoolchildren, or if a law prevents people from joining associations of their choice;
or still further, if an accused in a complex fraud case submits that he wants an expert witness provided for him at the State’s expense, these matters may all involve the protective provisions of the Constitution.
The same is true if laws are passed which have the effect of discriminating against some citizens on the basis of their gender.
So that a Constitution has a greater general usefulness than simply keeping our leaders in check.   It is a document which touches our daily lives, but it is dynamic and needs the fertilisation of a strong public opinion if it is to be truly effective.
If our democracy is to mature in a proper manner, then the people must have a greater understanding of how they are governed and the limits of that governance. This can best be achieved in the first place by wide general understanding of our Constitution.
 

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