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Constitutional change comes with evolution

Weight of history: David Burt, the Premier, inadvertently got the ball rolling on independence talk during his speech last month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of universal adult suffrage (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

A prevailing view in some circles in Bermuda, Mr Editor, is that the British Government will not entertain any further amendment to the Bermuda Constitution Order unless we deign to seek independence.

Whether or not that is the official position remains a matter of conjecture and speculation, assuming, as it does, that there is even an official position. It has always been my experience with the Foreign Office, albeit limited, that cards are played pretty close to the chest and no option is ever closed off completely.

But be that as it may, there was that representation, a promise even, that was made when the Constitution Order was debated and passed by the British Parliament. Constitutional development, we were told, is “a steady process”, evolving through experience — my paraphrasing — and that if and when there is a demand for further change “then further change will no doubt occur”.

Of course, governments come and go over the years and with them past promises and policies. There is nothing unusual about that except, arguably, where decisions deviate from longstanding practice and convention, the most recent and egregious example being that Bill for public registers, for which it would appear that there are strong grounds not just for resistance but legal challenge. At the very least, we should reasonably expect adherence to past practice and that there will be no deviations without due process.

But the issue of process apart, there is a history to constitutional change and it is reasonably recent history to boot. The first Progressive Labour Party government was able some 30 years later to address those issues which it had championed and which had gone unaddressed at and after the 1966 Constitutional Conference, the biggest of which was the introduction of single seats with the goal of establishing as near as possible one man, one vote of equal value.

Single-seat constituencies, 36 in total, were made possible in 2003 after the recommendations of the Boundaries Commission, which had been given the necessary constitutional remit to come up with a number acceptable to all members — two from the Government, two from the Opposition and two independent members from outside Bermuda. with new boundary lines without regard to parish lines and without regard to the racial make-up of electors. While that was probably the most significant and important constitutional change, there have been others over the years.

For the record, and to complete the record, that same PLP government upon election finally did away with voluntary voter registration — no constitutional change was required there — while the residency vote had long since been abolished under the United Bermuda Party, which had also ushered in the lowering of the voting age to 18 years.

Some other changes, again under the PLP, included the establishment of the post of Ombudsman and its inclusion in the Constitution Order. Here, it is worth noting that this new office now provided residents with an avenue for complaints of maladministration without having to incur the expense of judicial remedy.

Not as impactful on ordinary lives but important all the same, the government auditor was given elevated status and known as Auditor-General — as is the post in other modern jurisdictions.

In fact, there have been no fewer than half a dozen amendments to the Constitution Order over the past 50 years from the renaming of Government Leader, Executive Council to Cabinet and Members to ministers.

The post of Attorney-General was also modified to allow for the political appointment of Attorney-General and the constitutional establishment of an independent Director of Public Prosecutions in such cases.

There is, therefore, a history of constitutional change where there is a recognised demand for change. It is also fair to say that many of the changes, if not all of them, over the 50 years, have been undertaken with a view to modernising our system of government and enhancing our parliamentary democracy.

The weight of that history would suggest support for further changes where there is a demonstrated demand, which, frankly, is not an unreasonable expectation, more so in the absence of any formal pronouncement to the contrary from London.

NEXT: What further reform short of independence