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Appetite for a first constitutional conference since 1979?

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons has invited members of the public in Overseas Territories to tell the committee what they think of the status of their respective relationships with the United Kingdom. Submissions have been invited so that the committee can assess whether those relationships are satisfactory and appropriate in today’s modern world — and, presumably, to entertain what steps may be taken to improve those relationships. Former MP and columnist John Barritt has penned a series of columns that will form the basis of submissions he intends to share with the British parliamentary committee. Readers are invited to share their views on the matters that he raises and on any other matters you think should be taken into account. Your comments and suggestions will be forwarded to the committee, along with those of the author. You may submit them in the online comment sections at the end of each column or e-mail jbarritt@ibl.bm.

When it comes to constitutional reform, the last thing we want or need is for London to dictate to Bermuda. Those days are over. Direct rule is a thing of the distant past, so we are told, although an argument to the contrary could be mounted with the recent refusal to assent to our government’s legislation on cannabis.

So what role can His Majesty’s Government play either directly or through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? It has to be at best as facilitator in the first instance if, in fact, Britain is now prepared to entertain constitutional reform that has as its goal enhanced governance and a closing of our democratic deficit.

This role is not foreign to HMG. It is a role that the Foreign Office has played in the past. The most notable example would have been the last Constitutional Conference, which was held on these shores, at Warwick Camp in 1979. There was lots of wrangling between the two political parties — the United Bermuda Party, which was then the Government, and the Progressive Labour Party, then the Opposition. It led to the reduction of the voting age from 21 years to 18 and the eventual end to the highly contentious three-year residency vote. Left unresolved was the equally contentious issue of electoral reform; that is, the question of dual-seat constituencies versus single seats and the positioning of boundaries. That followed the election in 1998 of the PLP as the Government, a longtime advocate of that change.

A constitutional conference? It strikes me as a potentially sound way both to explore and to address the matter of constitutional reform. But it need not be confined to the shape and format employed in the past when only the two major political parties were represented. We have come a long way since then in terms of welcoming public engagement, although obviously the two big parties today would have primacy of place at the conference table — the one being government and the other vying to become government — both the democratically elected representatives of the people.

The scope could be easily expanded to include others, with new opportunities for participation having been made possible through advances in technology.

An invitation could be extended to other organisations — and individuals — to make submissions on what, if any, improvements and changes they would like to see made to The Bermuda Constitution Order 1968. This would be a marked but welcome change from the manner on which such conferences were held in the past when there was little, if any, opportunity for public participation. Moreover, invitations to sit at the conference table could be extended even to allow not just for oral presentations but as well for the opportunity for questions to be asked and answered.

There is absolutely no reason why these meetings could not be open to the public and/or broadcast and/or streamed on the internet.

Bermudians will then have what they have not had to date, and that is an opportunity to have a say, if not a hand, in constitutional reform and “Bermudianising” The Bermuda Constitution Order 1968.

Incidentally, for those who wonder why I deliberately keep referring to the document as The Bermuda Constitution Order, it is because that is what it is: an Order, an Order of the British Parliament. It is only Britain that can make amendments and hopefully, as has been the practice to date, after it has first met with agreement in Bermuda.

The idea of a constitutional conference, along the lines suggested here, would not only seem to be a more modern approach to closing our democratic deficit through constitutional reform, but also would be in line with the approach of the Bermuda Government.

When Carlyle Corbin’s analysis on Bermuda’s status was released, the Attorney-General and Minister of Legal Affairs and Constitutional Reform underscored in a separate ministerial statement her government’s commitment to public engagement “through wide-ranging community discussion and education”.

So it is that the opportunity for consensus and collaboration on the way forward presents itself, which, when taken at the flood leads on to good constitutional fortune — with some credit and apologies here to William Shakespeare.

NEXT: Matters for constitutional overhaul

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Published July 11, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated July 11, 2023 at 7:09 am)

Appetite for a first constitutional conference since 1979?

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