Equally Distracted: Losing Sight of the Referendum

[This paper was part of COB’s School of Social Sciences’ lecture series, Diners’ Debates, hosted at Mojo’s Restaurant on 20th November, 2014.]

In July 2014, Prime Minister Perry Christie announced in the House of Assembly that, on 6th November, 2014, the Bahamian electorate would be asked to cast their votes in a constitutional referendum. The only surprise should have been that such a referendum might finally happen, because it has been on Christie’s to-do list ever since he announced the appointment of the Constitutional Commission on 1st August, 2012.

When the Commission submitted its report on 8th July, 2013, that document came close to 250 pages, and made many recommendations. Addressing all of them in a single referendum would indeed have been impractical; this, perhaps, was a lesson learnt from the failed attempt at constitutional reform undertaken by Hubert Ingraham’s administration in 2002.

When the referendum was finally announced and scheduled, and when the Constitutional Amendment Bills were read in the House of Assembly, the overarching theme under which they could have been presented to the public, should have been that of gender equality. Christie, when announcing the appointment of the Commission, laid out in about a page and a half which aspects of the Constitution he expected the Commission to scrutinise. He begins this list by asking the Commission to “pay particular attention to the need to strengthen the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, including the need to end gender-based discrimination against women consistent with United Nations Conventions and more enlightened views that have developed globally since the attainment of our Independence. The Commission’s inquiry into this particular matter will necessarily entail close examination not only of the antidiscrimination and fundamental rights provisions but the citizenship provisions of the Constitution as well. Indeed there are other difficult Citizenship-related questions that will no doubt exercise the Constitutional Commission as well.”

Gender equality thus almost became the theme for the first set of four Bills tabled in the House of Assembly. The Constitutional Commission was then charged with a public education campaign to ensure that Bahamian voters could make an informed decision. While officially – again – without a horse in the race, it would be naive to believe that Christie did not task the Commission with selling the four Bills, thus ensuring their passage in both Houses of Parliament as well as the referendum. A successful referendum would be a much needed ‘win’ for the embattled administration, which is headed by a Prime Minister who at times seems overly preoccupied with constructing his personal legacy. And what a legacy that would be: Perry Gladstone Christie, the Prime Minister who brought about gender equality. However, in an act of anticipatory obedience, the concept of gender equality never reached the floor of the House; instead, Christie introduced the referendum as eliminating “discrimination in The Bahamas based on sex.”

Gender, a social construct, had been replaced by the biologically interpreted word sex. This should have been straight forward: 53% of our population and 55% of registered voters are women; the workforce in today’s Bahamas is almost equally comprised of men and women, and in some key sectors, women clearly outnumber men; in today’s Bahamas, approximately 39% of households are female headed; as household sizes increase, that percentage increases, too, suggesting that the number of children raised in female headed households exceeds that figure of 39%; of persons with associate degrees, 66% are female, with bachelor degrees, 62%, with masters degrees, 61%. In such a society, a campaign for equality between the sexes should not be a contentious issue, right?

However, it is interesting to note that, as we continue to climb this ladder, amongst persons with doctorate degrees, only 46% are female. In the Bahamas, women are the sandwiched sex, who, despite doing most of the qualified professional work, are still a minority in the boardrooms of the country, in the political leadership of the country, or in the religious leadership of the country.

In its Report, the Constitutional Commission themselves had warned that “there was a fear that the interpolation of ‘sex’ into Article 26 would open the door for constitutional interpretations to embrace other collateral rights – i.e., a right to same-sex marriage and recognition of other rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender persons… This was opposed by many persons as being fundamentally repugnant to the established moral code, and indeed to guard against such a possibility there were calls for constitutional protection to be given to the institution of marriage…”

As predicted, the national conversation on a constitutional referendum for equality of the sexes was quickly hijacked by homophobic speech, which soon dominated the discussion. This, I posit however, was a proxy discussion. The social realities just mentioned are not a secret, and many who oppose women’s rights have come to realise that doing so openly and honestly would likely not gain sufficient traction. On the other hand, homophobia is alive and well in the Bahamas, and can be used – abused – misdirected – to derail many a discussion. In other words, homophobia was a tool consciously chosen by misogynists to sabotage the referendum process, for fear that old-fashioned misogyny would no longer be effective enough.

That this strategy worked, I further posit, is partly the fault of the government-sanctioned educational campaign, which entertained the topic too patiently, thus suggesting a validity of the subject. This was, too, largely the fault of the media which, doing away with any editorial responsibility, jumped on the bandwagon knowing that loud vitriolic rants about LGBT persons translate into ratings and sold newspapers.

Other main topics, if one can still call them main, of debate tended to be twofold:

  1. A constant criticism of the government’s education effort: it is true that the Constitutional Commission’s approach of educating voters through town hall meetings was decidedly twentieth century. It is equally true, however, that given our nation’s geography and infrastructure, town hall meetings are still necessary, at least as one element of any national education campaign. So while only half-heartedly defending the approach, I would like to hold the mirror in the media’s face. For instead of playing their part, and becoming a part of the educational effort – and qualified contributors had offered their services on numerous occasion – they chose the easier life of the armchair quarterback.
  2. A feigned feeling of being overwhelmed by having to think about equality, crime, immigration and ‘VAT coming’ at the same time. Having successfully demonstrated that we can walk and chew gum at the same time, we cannot seriously be proposing to run a single-issue nation. In fact, I strongly suspect that, if the government announced this as their new approach, we would demand more multi-tasking from them.

The fourth Bill, which should have been the most straight-forward, received most of the attention, to the point that, if they are ever brought forward to referendum, it now seems likely that we may just include a dictionary definition of the word ‘sex’ in our Constitution. In this climate it was almost impossible to have a genuine conversation about the Bills’ very real weaknesses, which were rooted, in part, in sloppy preparation, and in part in a conscious disregard for the Constitutional Commission’s own recommendations; and which, in a best case scenario, would have retained several other existing levels of discrimination in our Constitution, or which, in a worst case scenario, had the potential to effectively add new elements to the already existing levels of discrimination in our Constitution.

Retired Justice Rubie Nottage, spearheading the government’s educational effort, convincingly argued that equality between the sexes was a common theme of the four individual Constitutional Amendment Bills. However, if read closely, these Bills speak to a number of issues. The first three Bills addressed the Chapter on citizenship in our Constitution, more specifically, they addressed how children are entitled to, and acquire citizenship from their parents.

Currently, these citizenship provisions treat mothers and fathers differently. They treat married and unmarried persons differently. They treat parents differently depending on how they themselves acquired Bahamian citizenship. They treat persons differently based on their date of birth. Or, more precisely, they treat children differently depending on how all the above criteria apply to their parents. Some of these differences were resolved, others modified, and others retained. And: new ones were added on. As it stands, we have groups of Bahamian parents, male and female, whose children may not, or may only conditionally, qualify for Bahamian citizenship. Even with all four Bills passed, we would still have such lesser bahamians-with-a-small-b. In the Bahamas, citizenship does not make you an equal citizen.

The discrepancy of these proposals with the Constitutional Commission’s recommendation that “[t]he ability of a Bahamian father or mother to transmit their citizenship to their children born overseas should be a right not conditioned on how the parent acquired citizenship”, has been discussed at great length at the numerous sessions of COB’s School of Social Sciences’ own educational campaign.

In short, for the beautiful simplicity of four Bills presented under the theme of equality between the sexes, the four Bills were remarkably complex. They would have addressed not only the rights of women and men, mothers and fathers; they would have addressed the rights of parents and children, they would have said something about the institution of marriage (though not what the public outcry might have us believe). They would have had citizenship implications, and that means immigration implications.

This brings us closer to closing the circle of distraction. While I argue that much of the discussion about the constitutional referendum has been a distraction from the core issues of the Constitutional Amendment Bills, others have claimed that the constitutional reform exercise itself was just another move in a game of distractionary politics played by the Christie administration.

Both the PLP and the FNM realise that a successful referendum required for constitutional reform depends on bi-partisan support for the process. This is not just a democratic desirability, but a mathematical necessity, because despite their overwhelming majority in Parliament, the PLP is a minority government of 48.7% of the popular vote. Furthermore, this number only represents the valid ballots cast in the last general election. Adjusted for participation of eligible voters, that is taking into account the spoilt ballots, the no-shows and the adult Bahamians who did not register to vote, the PLP is currently governing with the votes of approximately 36% of Bahamian adults. It is also not unreasonable to suspect that the current administration’s popularity has declined since the last election. While the PLP could, provided there was no dissension amongst their ranks, easily pass these Bills through both houses of Parliament today, success at the polls cannot be guaranteed through the PLP’s voter base alone.

The prospects of broad political support of the Constitutional Amendment Bills may change significantly depending on the outcome of today’s FNM convention. However, given the nature of Bahamian politics which some observers describe as tribal, any constitutional referendum on gender equality may well be doomed as long as it is being driven by Christie, at whose hands it was defeated last time. An alternative approach, where for instance the leading women of both parties were to become the driving force, seems an unlikely scenario in our leader-centered society.

Partially out of hurt for the defeat at the hands of a destructive Christie-led campaign in 2002, partially out of oppositional obstructionism, yet understanding the merit of this constitutional reform effort and the role that a responsible loyal opposition ought to play in it, the FNM has thus far failed to convincingly indicate a clear and unified party position on the four Bills.

For example, the FNM MP for the Montagu constituency, Richard Lightbourn argued in the House of Assembly, “The filing of these [four constitutional amendment] bills was clearly a diversion of the public debate  on the ramifications surrounding the signing of the letter of intent by a  parliamentary secretary.” This controversy of course, is still ongoing, and while some observers have, only half-jokingly, suggested that the current administration might deliberately produce one blunder after another to divert attention from previous blunders, the so-called LOI affair demonstrates that, first and foremost, this administration has a serious communication problem and deficit.

When discussing the actual content of the Constitutional Amendment Bills, Lightbourn had this to say: “One of them relates specifically to bill number three, which grants the citizenship to children born to a Bahamian male [by a foreign mother who is not his wife], and I think this is something that the government needs to consider very seriously. You’re going to grant citizenship to children who are born to a Bahamian male who have had perhaps a very casual relationship with a woman either in The Bahamas or outside of The Bahamas, and that simple fact would give that child the right to citizenship, even though the mother may have no connection whatever to this country. You can go on a trip to wherever in the world and you have a casual relationship with some woman in whatever country and you come back to The Bahamas and you find out nine months later that you had a little baby. That child is entitled to be a citizen. So if that child is going to be a citizen of The Bahamas then surely the child is entitled to be here. Are you going to have that child come here without its mother? I would think not. I would think that would also give the mother the right to be here with her child, so you now have to consider what rights you’re going to grant to that person. Same thing in The Bahamas, you have a child with a person who is not a citizen of The Bahamas, an illegitimate child, many of whom perhaps are illegal in this country. So you have a child with [her]. That child then is a citizen and then you have to decide what happens to the mother who is here illegally. But now that mother becomes the person who in all likelihood will be looking after her child. So she stays here, so what are you going to do with them? You certainly can’t ship her out of the country. So it has a lot of side issues, which I think they need to consider before proceeding with a bill such as that.”

Not only do these comments come alarmingly close to invoking the stereotype of the oversexed African male stemming from the era of chattel slavery, they also demonstrate a very old-fashioned understanding of gender roles, as well as an ignorance of current reproductive patterns in the Bahamas. What could have been discussed as the rights of children, and what, in the context of the other Bills was discussed as the rights of mothers, is, in this instance not phrased as a discussion about the rights of fathers, but as a discussion about their responsibilities. Even more: denying the existence of men’s responsibilities for their “casual relationships,” these children and their mothers are portrayed as the responsibility – read ‘burden’ – of the state. And these children and their mothers are identified as would-be immigrants.

We were supposed to have a constitutional referendum on gender equality earlier this month, a constitutional referendum that would have had immigration implications. We did not. Instead, a few days before the abandoned referendum date, the government rolled out a New Immigration Policy, which, predictably, dominated the discussion. However, this so-called policy amounts to little more than a renewed articulation – or a new rearticulation – of existing practices which have long proven ineffective, but which, if temporarily exercised with heightened visibility, carry a number of short-term benefits for the government. As the impact of homophobia on the constitutional discourse had shown, our society, characterised by large groups that are socially, economically and educationally disenfranchised, reacts positively to scapegoating; if homophobia can be exploited to divert from gender equality, xenophobia can be exploited, too. While a majority of Bahamians praised the government for coming down ‘tough on illegals,’ very few voices of concern for civil and human rights could be heard through all the noise. On 6th November, hardly anybody noticed that they did not get to cast their vote in a referendum.

What are the reasons for the delay? The Perry-Late-Again-Christie narrative is too simplistic. The official justification was that more time was needed for public education. While the effort has indeed been lackluster, the Bills are not rocket science, and, given a real mandate and resources, and utilising additional approaches beside than the traditional town hall format, three months should have been ample time for an educational campaign. In fact, we have repeatedly demonstrated that this already exceeds our national attention span. However, unlike a non-binding opinion poll, a constitutional referendum requires that a certain process must be followed. In a constitutional amendment, voters cannot be asked just a vague question, but are asked to vote on a Bill that has been duly passed by Parliament. The four Constitutional Amendment Bills however have not been passed by the House, let alone the Senate; they are still in ‘committee stage.’ This means that amendments to the amendments are still possible, and possibly likely. It is frivolous to expect any educational campaign to educate anyone on a matter that is still subject to change.

While the debate in the House suggested that some of our MPs could have benefitted from some more education on the Bills – and on the concepts contained in these Bills – there may be other reasons for the delay. Bernard Nottage, Leader of Government Business in the House of Assembly, and as Minister of National Security responsible for elections and referenda, has indicated that the Bills, before coming to a vote in Parliament, would be given to the so-called Bahamas Christian Council for final approval. While this speaks volumes about our understanding of the role religion ought to play in a democratic state, it may indicate the government choosing the path of least resistance following an analysis of the gaming ‘referendum’ of 2013.

Like so many other projects that could – as it is often phrased – deepen our democracy, constitutional reform will not occur without the express demand by civic society. As long as we as citizens follow suit every time the topic of conversation is changed, the conversations will never conclude, or yield results. This also means that we must take more responsibility in educating ourselves about political issues. In fact, I am not sure why we expect the government to educate us on their agenda, rather we should suspect that any such effort would be to sell us their agenda. We cannot have a democracy, if we do not act like democrats.