The PLP, Women’s Rights and Referenda

Last week, Minister of Foreign Affairs Fred Mitchell announced in the House of Assembly that the PLP government would put a referendum before the Bahamian electorate to amend the Constitution to remove from it the inbuilt gender discrimination regarding citizenship. That is a good thing.

Many observers of Bahamian politics were surprised, however, for this question was already put before the Bahamian electorate in a referendum ten years ago, and ten years ago it was the same PLP that campaigned against the referendum, that told Bahamian voters, and thereby Bahamian women, to vote against equal rights. How come the PLP supports constitutional change in 2012 that they opposed in 2002?

Thankfully, Prime Minister Perry Christie was not far behind and explained his party’s position to the Nassau Guardian:

“We opposed last time on a specific ground. … I went to the Seventh Day Adventist annual gathering. I remember the then leader of the Seventh Day Adventist [Church] saying they weren’t consulted and that because they weren’t consulted they couldn’t participate. I then checked and found out that all of the churches were saying they weren’t consulted, and I went to my colleagues and said, for the purposes of the lack of consultation, we must oppose this unless Ingraham decides to stop it and consult, and he didn’t and that is how we got to do it. … the PLP’s opposition to the referendum was that you should never do something against the will of the people, and the FNM was actually acting against the will of the people. It was not a question of a judgment as to the substance of it; it was a judgment of the process. We attacked the process and we were successful in attacking the process. Now the by-product of it was that you say it wasn’t passed. Yes, it wasn’t passed, but we were never motivated against any issue on the referendum. We were motivated against the fact that it was being imposed on the Bahamian people against their will.”

To say that Ingraham and the FNM imposed women’s rights on the Bahamian people against their will is disingenuous, to say the least. The Bahamian people were consulted on the issue. Twice. By definition, a referendum is a consultation of the people. Furthermore, a quick look at the FNM’s 1997 election platform shows that the FNM was reelected to office that year with this issue being a part of their agenda. Surely, the leader of the opposition can be expected to read the competition’s manifesto.

The Free National Movement’s “Manifesto II: Agenda to and for the 21st Century” includes a chapter on women’s affairs. On page 35 it states that the FNM would “continue to recognise women’s rights as fundamental human rights, and to address all areas of gender discrimination that exist under the law at present,” and that the FNM would “move for the Constitution to be amended so as to grant Bahamian women all privileges and entitlements afforded to Bahamian men.”

This means that the FNM went into the 1997 general election with this issue before the Bahamian electorate. Surely, Christie understands that a general election is indeed a form of consultation of the voting public, for otherwise all measures the current government is implementing have to be considered to be against the people’s will?

As for the Seventh Day Adventist Church and whatever other Churches Christie may or may not have spoken to… The Bahamian people elect politicians to make political decisions. No decision-making power is vested in the Churches by our Constitution. If Ingraham did not consult these institutions, he in no way violated our Constitution, but rather strengthened the sovereign in a democracy, the people. Besides, it is not like the Churches in the Bahamas did not make their opinions heard on whatever issue, whether asked for or not.

The PLP cannot have opposed women’s rights in 2002 on procedural grounds. It did so simply to show its opposition against Ingraham and the FNM and to damage the political opponent in anticipation of the general election. It was a cheap manoeuvre in which women’s rights were instrumentalised, indeed sacrificed, for political gain, and it shows a number of disappointing parallels to the behaviour of our political actors in the marital rape issue that the FNM attempted to address half-heartedly during its last term in office.

Using the Churches as an excuse to oppose women’s rights in a referendum carries another important significance in the current political situation of our country. Leading up to the 2012 general elections, the PLP promised the Bahamian electorate that their voice would be heard, via a referendum, on two issues: oil and gambling.

Since 7th May, the PLP has already begun to backtrack on the oil referendum, claiming that the costs of an oil referendum might be prohibitive. One could suspect that the promise of a referendum was intended as a campaign ploy to create the illusion of transparency on an issue muddled with suspicions of conflicts of interest, in which case the backtracking is the logical conclusion to the outcome of the general elections.

The other referendum item, gambling, has been discussed at length over the past couple of years. It is no news to anyone following – or involved in – Bahamian politics that many, if not most, clergy in the country officially oppose gambling. If Christie now cites the lack of consultation of the Churches as a reason to oppose a 2002 referendum, he may in fact be preparing the ground for cancelling a possible 2012 referendum on gambling.

Reviving the idea of a referendum that would grant women equal constitutional rights regarding citizenship – an issue I could not find mentioned in the PLP’s 2012 Charter, and I am therefore (pleasantly) surprised to see on the government’s agenda – could then serve as a smokescreen behind which campaign promises disappear, and it might appease a lot of people who were downright disgusted with the campaign against gender equality ten years ago. Like 2002, there is reason to suspect that the PLP’s stance on women’s rights is dictated primarily by political strategy as opposed to convictions, beliefs or ideology.

Let us hope that the opposition this time around will agree to do the right thing, and support a good cause, even if it may have come about for the wrong reasons.


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