The JLP and The CCJ
The Simpson Miller led administration has made known its intention to accept the appellate jurisdiction of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), an occasion intended to mark Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of political independence from the United Kingdom. However, the plan seems set to stall as the parliamentary opposition has declared that it will not support the move without a referendum. That is, the matter must be put to the people for a vote; the Jamaica Labour Party is dead wrong. I am deeply disappointed that a matter so important is being stalled by our petty and partisan politics. It demonstrates the extent of our political immaturity and the Opposition Leader should be ashamed of himself. For his part, Foreign Affairs Minister, AJ Nicholson QC, has advised that the government would not seek a decision on the matter by way of referendum. He argues that this is unnecessary as no where in our constitutional arrangements or the Privy Council’s judgement on the matter is there a call for a referendum. I wholeheartedly support the PNP on this matter and urge all well thinking Jamaicans to do the same.
The JLP’s position on the CCJ has always been one shrouded in doubt. To be frank, I’m not sure the party understands its own opposition to the court. Former Opposition Leader, Edward Seaga, famously declared that the CCJ was intended to be a hanging court, and therefore the JLP could not support it. So opposed was Mr. Seaga to the move by then Prime Minister Patterson, that the JLP joined in a lawsuit which saw the Privy Council holding that Jamaica could not accept the appellate jurisdiction of the CCJ without a 2/3 majority of both houses of parliament. This, I’m advised, effectively means the government will require the support of the Opposition in the Senate. I wish to interrogate the JLP’s motives for calling for a referendum, the idea that the CCJ will be a hanging court, and finally the concept of ‘people power’ and the will of the people.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs rightly pointed out that a referendum is in effect an election, the likes of which the country cannot afford. We have already had two in the last 7 months alone. My first objection to the referendum is cost. If, as the learned QC has pointed out, there is no need for a referendum, why would we spend the millions of dollars it will require? It appears to me that we would be wasting money. Jamaicans are tired of going to the polls, we don’t anticipate or want another election for the next five years. What’s more, should the referendum fail, and Jamaicans vote “no”, we could find ourselves dealing with a collapse of the CCJ. The effects of this would possibly spread across the region and de-stabilise CARICOM, but then that may be what the JLP wants if one listens to MPs such as Gregory Mair and Karl Samuda. Why do I say a ‘no vote’ on the CCJ could destroy the CCJ and even CARICOM?
If the result is ‘no’, it would mean Jamaicans reject the CCJ, much the same way we rejected the West Indies Federation in the 1940’s. There has to be a fear among historians that this may repeat itself. I believe a no vote would bring into serious question our relationship with the CCJ on matters of trade and interpreting the Treaty of Chaguaramas. If we don’t trust it with appeals, can we then say we trust it to settle trade disputes? I’m of the view that many countries, including Trinidad and Tobago, are watching Jamaica very closely before making up their minds on the CCJ. Should Jamaica reject it, then the rest of the Caribbean could reject it; you’ll recall that one from ten leaves nought. History has taught us an important lesson about the importance of Jamaica to CARICOM and the integration movement, the JLP must take heed. Playing politics can have serious consequences.
The call for a referendum by the JLP is little more than a cheap political distraction, one intended to test it’s own political strength as it seeks to find itself after two crushing defeats at the polls. If the PNP government puts the matter to a referendum and loses, it would be a significant political blow to the party and to the government. Referendum losses have historically preceded an actual election loss. I believe this is what the JLP wants, the intention is to weaken the PNP possibly ahead of an expected leadership battle as observers expect the current party president to step aside soon. This is essentially shameless and barefaced politics on the part of the opposition. They are doing Jamaica and the independence of our judiciary a great disservice. Minister Nicholson is right when he says the referendum would draw the judiciary in a political brawl, that is not a situation we desire. That is not a situation the JLP should desire either.
To excuse its behaviour, the JLP has proposed a smoke screen argument. The argument suggests that by insisting on a referendum, the party is actually endorsing the will of the people and better enabling ‘people power’. This is nonsense. You see, the will of the people doesn’t always mean the people directly intervening or having a say in a matter. In fact, that’s why we elected a Parliament. We have given that collective body the power to exercise our will; of, for and by the People. Legislators are empowered to vote on our behalf and to carry out our wishes in Parliament. This is another argument that dismisses the fear that the CCJ will be a hanging court. If the JLP is concerned with hanging, the answer is to table legislation in Parliament and repeal the statues which allow capital punishment. If there is no law which recommends capital punishment, the CCJ would have no appeals regarding hanging to pronounce on. Legislators simply need to do the job we elected them to do. A referendum is just not necessary. The only expense I’m willing to support is one geared towards a public education campaign. I believe it is important that we educate our people about the CCJ and its benefits. That, in my humble opinion, is a form of people power. The power of knowledge. With that knowledge, Jamaicans will be able to join in the national debate on the CCJ and legislators may get a sense of what the electorate wants and that knowledge will inform their votes when they are called upon to say nay or yay. People power need not be direct and in your face.
Finally, the fact that no other Commonwealth nation has utilised a referendum when severing ties with the Privy Council is an important one. Why should Jamaica tread the road no other country has seen it fit to? The President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom has, in diplomatic language, advised that we should utilise the CCJ. In effect, he considers our appeals a burden to British judges and British tax payers, are we going to wait until they throw us out? Have we no shame? I’m afraid the JLP should be overruled in this matter. Jamaica should accept the appellate jurisdiction of the CCJ, and we need not have a referendum to do so.