Why “Save our Bahamas” won’t save our Bahamas

It’s been a long time since I posted to this blog. That is not because I haven’t been writing though. In fact, my topic today has kept me busy for pretty much two years now: our Constitution and the need to amend it. It’s kept me so busy that I wrote – and had published – two journal articles on the subject: “Citizenship as a Fundamental Right: How the Bahamian Constitution Mis-imagines the Nation” (IJBS 2015) and “Bahamian-ness as an Exclusive Good: Attempting to Change the Constitution, 2002” (IJBS 2016).

Opponents of the referendum currently scheduled for June 7, 2016, will have us believe that, in principle, they agree that women and men should enjoy the same constitutional rights in the Bahamas. Compared to 2002, that is progress. Yet they attack the proposals, by making emotional appeals to the widespread homophobia in the Bahamas.

Sadly, the media as well as the political leadership engage them in this discussion. However, this only fans the flames further. This discussion is non-sensical, and should not be given room in the current debate.

The current proposals are far from perfect, and while they will remove some constitutional equality, they will retain other elements of inequality – and they will even introduce new elements of discrimination to our Constitution. This is a debate we should be having. This is the debate I had hoped to encourage through my articles above. However, the noise of SOB’s* sobs drowns out any intelligent debate.

The currently proposed amendments do not pose the threat they are made out to be. What it boils down to is that misogynists in 2016 are simply too afraid to openly admit to being misogynists. But if the amendments do not pose the threat they are made out to be, then there is nothing that “Save Our Bahamas” can save the Bahamas from.

Here is my suggestion to Parliament on how to overcome the current dilemma of having a constitutional referendum about equal rights for women and men derailed by a proxy debate about same-sex marriage:

As both the Prime Minister as well as the Constitutional Commission have pointed out, the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1879 defines marriage in the Bahamas as a union between one woman and one man. As they have also pointed out, the Constitution allows marriage laws in the Bahamas to be discriminatory. As they have also pointed out, if furthermore allows laws passed prior to independence to be discriminatory. As they have also pointed out, it does not require a politically cumbersome referendum with an unknown outcome to change the Matrimonial Causes Act. A simple Act of Parliament could bring same-sex marriage to the Bahamas. It could easily do so before June 7, 2016.

Thus, I call upon the Prime Minister, the House of Assembly and the Senate to immediately pass legislation to allow for same-sex marriage in the Bahamas. Not only is it the right thing to do anyway, but this will demonstrate to the Bahamian electorate in general and the SOBs in particular that the upcoming referendum has nothing to do with same-sex marriage. It should then either make equal rights for women and men under our constitution a non-issue – or force the misogynists to admit to their misogyny.

* Their chosen abbreviation, not mine.

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Consequences of Losing the Supermajority

With the resignation of Andre Rollins (MP Fort Charlotte) from the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), which follows on the footsteps of the resignation of Greg Moss (MP Marco City) from the same, the governing party has lost its supermajority in the House of Assembly. Considering that the party only received 48.7% of the popular vote in the last election, that may be a democratic improvement in the composition of Parliament, but it does constitute one fundamental challenge: the PLP MPs can no longer pass Constitutional Amendment Bills without the support of opposition or independent members. Let us remember that four of them are currently “stuck in committee” in the House.

One way out of this dilemma for the PLP would be to replace the non-voting Speaker Kendal Major (MP Garden Hills) with an independent or opposition MP as Speaker of the House. This would, given the current count, restore the PLP’s supermajority. However, this may only be a temporary solution, for many Bahamians have long suspected – and these suspicions are growing daily – that Renward Wells (MP Bamboo Town) is pondering a move similar to Moss and Rollins. If he resigned, too, the PLP’s supermajority would be history regardless.

If the Prime Minister is serious about gender equality, and serious about constructing his legacy as the man who brought about constitutional reform to this effect, now may be the time to make this constitutional reform effort truly non-partisan. This would require him and the rest of the PLP to engage in a genuine conversation with the opposition; this would require them to take seriously the flaws which have been pointed out in the existing draft bills. This could potentially make the bills – and thus his legacy – stronger. This would also require him to apologise.

Perry Christie is, after all, the man who led the charge against constitutional reform for gender equality in 2002. The bills now are not new, they are but the reheated, toted lunch in a Styrofoam container of what he campaigned against back then. Right now, his legacy is that of the man who blocked gender equality by sabotaging a referendum. He needs to swallow his pride, admit his mistake, apologise to all those who were alienated by his actions in 2002. Then, and only then, could he pave the way for reconciling divided parties on this issue, and he could build a legacy of a man not ashamed to admit to and correct his mistakes.

However, I suspect that the proposed Constitutional Amendment Bills have always been less about gender equality and more about legacy building. I fear that stubborn pride may blind the Prime Minister to see the above as a viable option. This leaves one more scenario for gender equality during his current term: forget about it. This might leave his pride intact, and in his imagination it may not even negatively affect his legacy, which at this time primarily exists in his imagination anyway. This will, however, continue to treat women as second-class citizens, signalling to the rest of the world that the Bahamas is not yet ready to join it in the twenty-first century.

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.