So it’s now official: Belize’s general election will be held on February 7th, 2008, but this general election has an extra wrinkle thrown in. It appears that Belizeans will be asked to vote in a referendum, a vote as to whether Belizeans want an elected Senate in addition to choosing a new government for the next five years. Maybe I should rename this column “Confusion Band,” because I have serious, and I mean serious reservations about the wisdom of and the appropriateness of conducting this referendum along with what appears to be a crucial and contentious general election.
The Prime Minister has openly stated that the referendum is basically a “yes” or “no” question. It contains no details as to how that Senate would be elected or what powers it would have or not have. All that, according to the PM, “will be worked out later.” Oh, really? There appears, at least to me, to be a little problem here. It’s called the Constitution!
Section 68, subsection 3 of the Constitution states the following: “A Bill to alter this section, Schedule 2 to this Constitution or any of the provisions of this Constitution specified in that Schedule, shall not be regarded as being passed by the House of Representatives unless on its final reading in the House the Bill is supported by the votes of not less that three-quarters of all the members of the House.”
There it is. A referendum can’t legally change any provision of our Constitution! Such change can only occur if 75% of the House vote for that change. Given the contentiousness of party politics in today’s Belize, having ¾ of the House in agreement on any piece of legislation, well, don’t bet your life on it. Oh, there was one piece of legislation in 2005 that was unanimously approved by every member of our National Assembly. Know what it was? It was legislation to raise the pay of House members, in some cases as much as 300%! This legislation was passed at the same time that GOB was telling teachers and public officers that it couldn’t afford to honor their contractually agreed upon raise of 5%-8%!
So, what is the purpose of the referendum? It’s just a supposedly clever little piece of political maneuvering that is intended to convince some of the electorate that the PUP is really in favor of an elected Senate and that the Opposition is opposed to such change. Will it work? I don’t know. It will probably influence some voters, and I guess that makes it worthwhile for the PUP, but it means nothing. The concept of an elected Senate needs to be worked out and discussed in detail by all of the Belizean stakeholders. It should not be reduced to a cynical attempt to troll for votes – it is too important to be handled in such manner.
The rest of the initiatives bring the question, “If you really wanted to do these things, why wait until one month before an election?” Remember that in 2005, GOB signed an eleven-point agreement with the NTUCB, and then quickly cancelled the yearly increment for teachers and public officers with a story about changing the system to eliminate what they called “undeserved automatic increments.” Well, they changed the form used to recommend or to not recommend increments for employees. I guess it took them a year to come up with the wording changes. Of course all that happened was the elimination of the 2005-2006 increment, thus neatly canceling any possible gain from the February 11, 2005 agreement. I know that the BNTU has written them a number of times about that missing increment. We have never even received so much as a reply!
I have no problem admitting that any system, no matter how carefully crafted, can be abused by those who are intent on circumventing it, but there are changes that would make things harder to get away with. One of the death blows to our imported system of government was the destruction of the Public Service. Once party politicians appropriated Public Service jobs and turned them into rewards and plums for party loyalists, the result was foreordained. There will be no measurable progress unless the integrity, and the independence of the Public Service, is restored!
Our system of government presents the public with some unpalatable choices. When some House members begin to demonstrate a measure of independence from their political organization, things go haywire. Elected representatives who do this can find that all of their constituents are punished in retaliation, as those who demonstrated that independence – I’m referring specifically to the Honorable Mark Espat and Honorable Cordel Hyde – were effectively isolated from the wherewithal to assist their areas. We have a system that practically mandates loyalty and support for a political party instead of loyalty to one’s country. The clarion call becomes, “My party, right or wrong.”
The predominance of party interests rather than the national interests, becomes a recipe for disaster. Add to this the forces unleashed by globalization and you create misery on a growing scale. The supposed “change” from colony to independent nation becomes nothing more than a matter of semantics: former colonies have never been independent, period. How can we claim to be “independent” when our political system has been imported lock, stock and barrel, from the colonizer?
It’s my belief that a change to some modified form of proportional representation would do more than ten elected Senates to make the system harder to tweak. Unfortunately, neither of the two established parties, understandably, demonstrate the slightest interest in such a reform. As long as the political system remains basically the same, each of them continues on the gravy train while increasingly larger numbers of our population may soon be reduced to buying dog food for dinner!
Failing that kind of serious election reform, Belize would take a huge step forward if the electorate, those of us who can vote, use our ballots to pick the best candidate in our constituency according to our analysis, regardless of party affiliation! I mean it! Forget blue or red; forget any of that childish crap! No wonder Bloods and Crips have so much appeal among disadvantaged Belizean youth. Our politicians have been on the same trip even prior to internal self-government in 1964. Get rid of, “red will be our savior, blue will be our savior.” Do you know what Joe Mtume, an African-American talk show host, said on CNN when asked about his view of the Republicans and the Democrats in the USA? He replied, “The Republicans are robbing the bank, the Democrats are driving the getaway car!” I think that by now I don’t have to explain to readers how the rich and powerful contribute financially to both major parties. It’s a case of, “Heads I win, tails you lose.”
I live in and am registered in the Albert constituency. I support the person whom I regard as the best candidate in the Albert division – the Honorable Mark Espat! I don’t support the PUP and I don’t support the UDP. In Lake I, I would support Cordel Hyde. If I resided in Port Loyola, I would support Erwin X. If I lived in Collet, I would support Patrick Rogers. In Belmopan, I would support Hubert Enriquez. I’m sure that if I lived in another district, I would have what I believe is enough information to make what I would call an intelligent decision. I have talked to Edmund Castro on a number of occasions and if I lived in his district, I could see myself supporting him. Straight, like that!
I’m still teaching Social Studies at Edward P. Yorke High School. There is absolutely no doubt that the upcoming election and all of the issues surrounding it will be fodder for classroom discussion. There are however, three inviolable rules. 1) Everybody has a right to their own opinion. 2) Everybody’s opinion must be treated with respect, especially if it’s different from yours. 3) Opinions without facts and honest research to support them are just that – opinions. It’s just like your butt. Everybody has one. I see no reason why any teacher should feel uncomfortable discussing controversial topics as long as those discussions are conducted in a proper and respectful manner.
Some of our 4th Form students will vote in this election. Many of the lower Form students are just a year or two away from voting age. Those who object to such discussions in the classroom need to realize that democracy is not a spectator sport! Political intimidation along with demands for political orthodoxy, has no place in a good educational system! You would probably be shocked by some of the responses I get from students. They regard me as being hopelessly optimistic about the prospects for positive change! They are convinced that they have no future! That’s what our “leaders” have brought us to! Participation in the debates that will influence the future is essential for students if we want them to grow into knowledgeable, productive and concerned adult citizens.