An interesting perspective about the implication of the referendum. Extracted from today’s Barbados Editorial.
When, ten or so years ago, after the expression of some degree of initial enthusiasm for the idea by a substantial number of Barbadians, then Prime Minister Owen Arthur seemed suddenly to abandon the notion of a referendum for transforming Barbados into a “republic” as the project was popularly termed, there were, naturally, expressions of regret and shock. In hindsight, some prescience for this abandonment must be credited to Mr Arthur, if we are to judge from the anomalous outcomes of other referenda since.
In St Vincent & the Grenadines in 2009, electors chose by a majority to vote No to such anodyne matters as the selection of a native head of state to replace the Queen of Great Britain, her heirs and assigns and the country’s accession to the appellate jurisdiction of the Caribbean Court of Justice in place of the Judicial Committee of Her Majesty’s Privy Council. This was in spite of the fact that the same electorate had only recently re-elected the proponent Gonsalves administration to office, albeit with a slim majority.
As Mr Arthur might have rightly feared, there seems to be in referenda a slavish adherence to Sod’s Law –“if things can go wrong, they will!” Not only does an administration have to cope with a populist antipathy to officialdom, but it also has to contend with a political opposition eager to prove its electoral worth by proposing a contrary stance to that advanced by the government. More significantly, it has to counter the forces of misinformation and purveyors urban legend that would seek to persuade voters that the government’s intentions are anything but honourable and that there is some latent nefarious scheme being hatched to ensure the concentration of power in the hands of the governing administration to the detriment of the populace. As may have been observed, this strategy appears to be limited neither to opposition parties nor to referenda alone.
Thus instead of the referendum being a genuine exercise of informed civic choice, it is transmuted into a combination of a litmus test against the proponent government, a blind adherence to gossip and innuendo and, frequently, in consequence, an uninformed and hence, undemocratic, descent into civic irresponsibility.
Nevertheless, the process manages to maintain the hallmark of democracy and this factor may be used thereafter as a justification for the most outrageous decisions. Hence, the surprising result of a recent plebiscite in The Bahamas where proposed amendments to the Constitution that would be ordinarily taken for granted elsewhere in most regional jurisdictions were nevertheless rejected.
Amazingly, one proposition that there should be no discrimination on the basis of sex was voted against because of an obviously persuasive but ill-founded assertion by a coalition, ironically titled “Save the Bahamas”, that this could have opened the door for same-sex marriages in The Bahamas. In fact, there is express legislative provision in the Bahamas that a legal marriage may be concluded between a man and a woman so determined at birth only. The surprising result in the UK referendum on its EU membership last week forms part of the same analysis.
It might have been precisely such a scenario that Mr Arthur feared. Indeed, it had already begun, with some antagonists claiming that the necessary proposed question –Should the head of State be a native Barbadian? –was an insult to their intelligence. If this were so, one can hypothesize only as to what such persons would have made of their suggested question –Should Barbados become a republic? – and as to the likely response to it in a referendum after the appropriate nightmare scenarios had been painted.