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Opposition complains Government still has too much influence over new People’s Constitutional Commission as it kicks into gear next week

Posted: Wednesday, November 9, 2022. 4:59 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: Next week Monday, the People’s Constitutional Commission (PCC) will be officially launched at the steps of the National Assembly Building in Belmopan.

Its primary task will be to consult Belizeans on changes to be made to the Belize Constitution, Chapter 4 of the Substantive Laws of Belize, and by its own pronouncement superior to every other law in the land.

The Commission consists of a cross-section of members covering political, economic, social, and other interest groups, including the late addition of the National Kriol Council. It is supported by the Ministry of the Public Service’s Good Governance Unit, which serves as the secretariat of the Commission.

At the recent debate in the Senate on the bill, the Opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) complained that the Government still wields too much influence in the handling of the Commission, while social partners sought further detail on exactly how it will operate.

Lead Opposition Senator Michael Peyrefitte started by stating that the Schedule to the Act listing the selected bodies and organizations on the Commission was too vague. More worryingly, the Minister under Section 6 has the power to amend or add to the Schedule – and therefore according to Peyrefitte, the power to remove “undesirable” organizations from the list.

He cited other instances of the Minister responsible – Public Service Minister Henry Charles Usher – and the Prime Minister potentially wielding significant influence over the affairs of the Commission, in contradiction of section 7 of the Act and the ruling party’s promises to legislate reduction of ministerial powers. For instance, the Prime Minister has the sole power to revoke the Commission of any member including the Chairman. Section 12 of the Act grants the Minister sole power to determine salaries and allowances for members of the secretariat, technical committees, and others.

Business Community Senator Kevin Herrera squarely put the question of whether the Commission will have powers to draft an entirely new Constitution, or simply to recommend amendments to the current one. While by law a new Constitution will be decided on in a national referendum, further details are needed to clarify, he argued.

NGO Senator Janelle Chanona called on Belizeans to inform themselves, ask questions and participate and shared her “greatest fear” – that the process becomes a distraction and not an opportunity to make the real change that she argued the nation needs. Fully 36 percent of the 1999 Political Reform Commission recommendations were never implemented while 19 percent were implemented in full, she pointed out.

Leader of Government Business Eamon Courtenay contended in response first to the social partner Senators that “we are attempting to create a Commission with the capacity, with the ability, with the powers to make recommendations after consulting with the Belizean people, and we should not prejudge what the result should be.”

As for the power to remove, it is at the discretion of the organization they represent, as there are examples of boards and commissions whose members cannot be removed. As for financing, the head of the Secretariat, after the chairman meets with members, will prepare the budget and a supplementary appropriation will be brought for “sufficient funds” for the Commission to do its work – as there is no provision within the budget to date – and the Senate should be the last ones to determine that.

On the matter of a potential referendum, Belize should not expect success – referenda in The Bahamas, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada all failed because “the people did not own the process.” The difference here, he argued, is that a majority of members are in the civil society and private sector – the major parties, including the PUP, are limited to a minority of members.

“You have to understand the Constitution. There is no point saying we want to get rid of the [King] if we do not understand what that means; there is no point saying we want a republic if we do not understand that there are many types of republics. So, they have an educational function, an informational function, that is critical to the success of this process, that is critical for the buy-in of this process. Ultimately, we stand here proudly to say: this is an attempt to empower the Belizean people to become architects of the structure and design of our Constitution, which is in effect how we are governed…in 2022, we have the opportunity, and we must seize the day,” Courtenay concluded.

 

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