Wednesday, April 17, 2024

People’s initiatives for greater democracy

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MOST BARBADIANS AGREE that our system of governance is in need of reform.

These reforms include but are not limited to:

• The electoral system

• Campaign finance

• The legislature

• Greater financial accountability

Barbados has a well educated and dynamic civil society that constitutes a valuable resource for ideas and initiatives. But this resource is grossly underutilised to the detriment of the country.

Barbados urgently needs greater democratic participation of its citizens in the governance of the country.

There are many reforms that would help to achieve this goal.

The reform we wish at this time to recommend to all Members of Parliament, all non-governmental organisations and the general public is a recommendation made by the 1996-98 Constitution Review Commission, chaired by Sir Henry Forde.  

One of the terms of reference of the commission was “encouraging a wider and deeper participation by the citizens of Barbados in the democratic processes of government, both at the parliamentary and other levels”. Accordingly, the commission recommended the creation of a system of People’s Initiatives, as set out below.

“The commission recommends that, as soon as possible, Government should introduce into Parliament legislation creating a system of People’s Initiatives designed to accord to electors a measure of original law-making power without bypassing or distorting the fundamental authority of Parliament in this domain.

“It is recommended that, at the time when a general election is held, qualifying groups of electors should be empowered to present, for the approval or disapproval of the general electorate, simply worded propositions for legislation by the incoming Parliament.

“It would be the responsibility of the Government, whenever any such proposition was approved by a qualifying proportion of the electorate, to present the relevant legislative measure to Parliament, where it would be the object of a free vote not subject to the discipline of the Party Whips.”

This system of People’s Initiatives could be immensely useful to NGOs as well as trade unions and other national organisations in advancing the interests of civil society.

However, it is clear that the details of the commission’s proposal need to be worked out. For example:

(1)  The terms, a “qualifying group of electors” and a “qualifying proportion of the electorate”, as used in the Commission’s report, will have to be defined; and

(2)  The specific steps to be taken to get a proposition on the ballot must be spelt out.

It should be noted that there are several examples of functioning systems of People’s Initiatives to be found across the world, notably in Switzerland, Canada (the province of British Columbia) and the United States (several states). Therefore we in Barbados could draw on their experience in fashioning our own system.

Essentially a People’s or Citizens’ Initiative, as it is also called, is an expression of direct democracy whereby, through a legal mechanism, a petition signed by a minimum number of registered voters can lead to an obligatory parliamentary vote on a proposed piece of legislation.  

We firmly believe that the creation of a system of People’s Initiatives, as envisaged by the Constitution Review Commissioners, would assist greatly in strengthening participatory democracy in Barbados.

The NGOs, the trade unions and other national organisations should therefore come together:

(1) To discuss and, hopefully, adopt the commission’s proposal;

(2) To work out the details of the proposed initiative; and

(3) To devise a strategy to get this proposal on the national agenda with a view to having it implemented, if possible, before the next general election.

We, the signatories to this letter, are prepared to convene the first of these national consultations.

– SIR HENRY FORDE, SIR STEPHEN EMTAGE, SIR WOODVILLE MARSHALL, IAN ARCHER, PATRICK FROST, PETER LAURIE

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