Letters — 08 September 2011 — by Osmany Salas
In the public discourse on the Ninth Amendment, I have been hearing a lot of interesting feedback, but also some ridiculous statements and comments. For example, a few people have been circulating Hitler-inspired caricatures of Prime Minister Barrow. That is not only childish and potentially libelous; it is also a gross misrepresentation and treads on dangerous ground.
Others have taken to comparing Prime Minister Barrow to Venezuelan President Chavez, and saying that we will be going down the Venezuela road if the Ninth Amendment passes. Also, that the Ninth Amendment is taking Belize down the road to a dictatorship.
First of all, PM Barrow is no Chavez. In fact, he’s far from being a Chavez, as those who have followed the trajectory of that South American leader can attest. And, secondly, the Belizean people would never accept our nation to become a dictatorship. These comments and characterizations are pure scare tactics, irresponsible sensationalism … and serve to confuse the nation.
Having said that, I must hasten to add that I see the Belize Constitution (Ninth Amendment) Bill as a major distraction. This is being treated as a major national security issue, as implied in last week’s issue of The Guardian newspaper, where it is stated that “Control of BTL lies at the heart of [Ashcroft’s] plans to control Belize.”
Such statements are also scare tactics. In my opinion, this certainly cannot measure up against what I consider the greatest threat to our national security – the regular encroachment and incursions by Guatemalans into our national territory. I wish that we would be putting as much energy on addressing such territorial threat as we are placing on nationalizing public utilities and presumably placing such nationalizations outside the reach of the Courts.
But getting to the point at hand: the Ninth Amendment Bill is supposedly about the ownership of the public utilities – to be specific, securing majority government ownership and control of the public utilities at all times. The alternative to this is the privatization of the public utilities – that is, the divestment of majority shares to private investors.
The former (i.e., majority GOB ownership stake) seems to be a core principle of the UDP, while the latter (i.e., divestment to private investors) seems to be aligned with the PUP’s philosophy.
A Google search gives you all the information that you need about the differing philosophies and policies of the two major political parties related to ownership of public utilities:
The Belize Water Services Company (known as WASA, then as BWSL) was privatized by the PUP in 2001, and re-nationalized in October 2005 by the same PUP via a re-purchase (See http://edition.channel5belize.com/archives/10657).
In 1992, the Belize Electricity Board (BEB) was privatized by the PUP and became Belize Electricity Limited (BEL) (GOB kept 51% majority ownership). In 1999, another PUP government divested itself of its majority shares. As we know, BEL was re-nationalized in 2011 by the UDP (See https://www.bel.com.bz/about_history.asp).
The story with the Belize Telemedia is much more complex. In 1987, it was a UDP Government that oversaw the creation of Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL) when the Belize Telecommunications Authority (BTA) merged with Cable & Wireless and the government vested the assets of BTA to BTL. (See http://www.belizetelemedia.net/our-history.php). The PUP engaged in or oversaw various sleights of hand in 2001, 2004, 2005, and 2007 which kept BTL under private ownership.
As we know, the UDP government nationalized the company, now known as Belize Telemedia, earlier this year.
The PUP policy on public utilities’ ownership(as reported by Channel 5 in March 23, 2001) can be encapsulated by the following comments: that the privatization of WASA in March 2001 “is part of government’s overall plan to divest itself of functions that it feels the private sector can do better. WASA is the third major utility to go on the block, following BTL and BEL”. The PUP Constitution also states that the PUP believes in “a dynamic economy that serves the public interest, and in which the enterprise of the market is joined with the forces of partnership and cooperation”.
To me, this sounds like a form of free market and capitalism, but where Government still retains a regulatory role.
The UDP policy seems to be to maintain/retain majority Government ownership and control of public utilities. Way back in 1984-1989, the UDP listed as one of its achievements: “…the modernization of Telecommunications with the Government retaining majority shares in the newly created corporation (Belize Telecommunications Limited)…” (from History, UDP Website).
In his 2010 New Year’s Message, the Prime Minister said: “Politically, the nationalization of Belize Telemedia was perhaps the greatest victory for Belizean sovereignty in the post-independence era. Of course, the enemy has mounted a series of rearguard actions. But our signal gain must be preserved. So locked in battle we shall remain until every last bit of neo-colonialist arrogance is driven headlong before us” (emphasis mine).
Should the philosophies and policies of political parties be enshrined into our Constitution if they have not been vetted by the entire Nation? In my view, enshrining majority Government ownership of public utilities into our Constitution is as inadvisable as enshrining the PUP philosophy on private investment and market enterprise into our Constitution. These are party policies – and each has its advantages and disadvantages.
And that is why these policies must remain so – party policies. We ought to vote for a party if we can stand to accept their policies – or at least if we prefer them to the policies of the other parties.
A second point: Proposed Section 69(9), even with the recent alteration, seems to be aimed at declaring the Supremacy of Parliament over and above the Constitution. The former Chief Justice has noted that “the legislative powers of the Legislature are not unlimited.” Our current Government seems to disagree.
In his letter to the Council of Churches, the PM stated that he agrees with a position declared by the Privy Council which states: “If the requisite legislative support for a change in the Constitution is forthcoming, a deliberate departure from fundamental rights may be made, profoundly regrettable although this may be” (Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead in the Privy Council case of Charles Matthew v The State).
This is another reason why the Ninth Amendment has become so controversial. For the first time, we are realizing that, with the requisite majority, Parliament may undermine/adjust /revise/change our fundamental rights and freedoms as currently enshrined in our Constitution.
The Prime Minister states that Parliament has always had this power. This is what scares me! This is what reinforces my longstanding belief that our first-past-the-post (winner takes all) political system that we have in this country needs to be changed. It is grossly misleading for the UDP to claim, just as the PUP did in 1998-2003, that their 2008 landslide gives them the mandate of the people.
What about the 43.39% of the people who did not vote for the UDP? Do their views, wishes and aspirations not matter?
To conclude, the preamble to the Ninth Amendment Bill states that majority ownership and control of the public utilities is the main purpose of the Bill. If that is so, then I suggest that we use our current laws to make this happen. Let’s not use our Constitution to ensure (to use the PM’s word) impregnability – which I believe cannot be ensured even with the passage of the Ninth Amendment. I do not believe that passage of the Ninth Amendment will halt litigation!
If the Government is sincere about amending the Constitution for the betterment of our Nation, then let’s undertake a comprehensive Constitutional Reform/Review initiative that involves the party in power, the Opposition parties, the social partners, and other key stakeholders. Such an initiative should involve countrywide consultations as you are doing now. This is the challenge I put to you esteemed political leaders.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my views.
August 31, 2011
(Ed. NOTE: The letter writer’s views are his own, and not necessarily those of this newspaper.)