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National Debate Begins

Hon D Kurt Tibbetts, JP, MLA
Leader of the Opposition - First Elected Member for George Town

Remarks by Hon. D. Kurt Tibbetts, MLA, JP

Opening of Constitutional Talks with UK Delegation

Ritz Carlton, Grand Cayman

29 September 2008

On behalf of the elected Government and the people of the Cayman Islands I wish, first of all, to extend a warm welcome to the delegation from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom Government. We are delighted to have you here and look forward to a productive first round of negotiations over the next four days.

I also wish to recognize the stakeholder groups which are represented on the national negotiating team. Namely, the official opposition, the United Democratic Party, the Chamber of Commerce, the Human Rights Committee, the Cayman Islands Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, and the Cayman Islands Ministers Association. Government values your participation in this historic exercise and thanks you for your contributions thus far, especially to the effort to achieve a consensus going into these important discussions.

With the formal start of negotiations with the UK Government this morning, the process of modernizing our constitution has reached a crucial point. Government's overriding objective is to achieve an outcome which provides a modern framework for our continuing constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom Government as an Overseas Territory on terms that are acceptable to the vast majority of our people. Constitutional modernization has been on the national agenda now for eight years awaiting a final determination. Government believes it is time to bring closure to the issue. Further delay is not in the country's best interest. Let us work assiduously, therefore, to make it happen.

Nine months ago, in fulfillment of an election promise, this Government re-launched what was effectively a stalled process. Since then, the Constitution Modernization Secretariat has traversed our three islands as it mounted the biggest public consultations exercise in the history of this country. Altogether, 18 public meetings were held. A considerable amount of public education literature was produced and distributed. Additionally, the Secretariat either sponsored or participated in numerous radio and television discussion shows.

The issue was also given prominence in the print media. Every opportunity for engaging stakeholder groups and the general public was fully used. The aim was to promote a high level of awareness of the relevant issues and canvass as wide a cross section of the country as possible, to determine how Caymanians felt about Constitutional Modernization. We have largely succeeded in doing so. Unfortunately, because of space limitations, not every interest group which was consulted could be included on the national negotiating team. However, they can rest assured that their views have been included.

To kick-start national debate on Constitutional Modernization, Government published and widely circulated a set of proposals in January this year for public consideration. The idea was to give insights into Government's thinking and to solicit feedback. Acting on this feedback, the proposals were subsequently revised and published in May for further public consideration and comment. These revised proposals, which were further fine-tuned following last Thursday's national stakeholders meeting, constitute the basic negotiating document. Since the UK has been similarly engaged in reforming its own system of governance to make it more relevant to today's needs, we look forward to hearing the FCO delegation's perspective on our proposals.

Through these negotiations, the Cayman Islands are seeking a new constitution anchored in a continuing relationship with the United Kingdom. In other words, the Cayman Islands wish to remain an overseas territory of the United Kingdom in keeping with the general desire of our people. There is a consensus within our community that despite evidence of some strains over recent years there are real and tangible benefits in continuing our constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom. There is absolutely no interest in and no desire for independence. Instead, what is desired and being sought are reforms which enhance this relationship to reflect our changing needs and growing maturity as a nation.

The present Cayman Islands Constitution was introduced in 1972 - that is, some 36 years ago. As you can appreciate, Caymanian society and, in fact, the wider world have undergone fundamental change since then. You only have to look at the amazing transformation of our economy to see the extent to which this country has changed. Yet we have as the supreme law of the land, a constitution which was designed for a different time and context. The fact that the UK Government requested the Cayman Islands and its other overseas territories to modernize their Constitutions, suggests that London itself recognizes there are deficiencies rendered by the passage of time.

The inadequacy of the 1972 Constitution to effectively address today's challenges is becoming increasingly apparent. Nothing has highlighted this inadequacy more than recent troubling issues related to national governance. Our growing maturity as a nation underscores the need for a Constitution which gives Caymanians, through their elected Government, a greater say in crucial decisions affecting our country. The people of the Cayman Islands, through their government, need to play a greater role in key decision making which affects local matters and local interests. This is particularly true in relation to key aspects of governance like national security and the conclusion of international agreements.

In essence, what we are seeking is a sharing of decision-making responsibility with the United Kingdom. For example, in certain cases where the Governor currently has exclusive responsibility, we are asking for these decision-making functions to be shared with the elected government. Oversight of the police represents a good example. Caymanians are calling for more accountability from the police because their services are directly funded by Caymanian taxpayers. However, as it currently stands, the office of the Governor has responsibility under the constitution for oversight of the police to the exclusion of the elected government.

When issues arise, Caymanians look to their elected government for decisive action to represent their interests but the elected government's hands are effectively tied. Except for raising their concerns with the Governor, there is nothing else the elected government can do. The 1972 Constitution does not give the elected government a basis on which to act. It must be apparent that a system which does not allow full public accountability by key organs of the state, cannot always be relied upon to ensure the delivery of good governance.

We also believe that the Cayman Islands have reached a stage in their development where the composition of our Legislature and Cabinet should fully reflect the democratic will of the people. Subsequent to the end of the Cold War, the world has witnessed a democratic revolution. Countries which were once ruled by dictatorships are functioning democracies today. Countries which were democratic have enhanced their systems to further empower their people.

The United Kingdom has actively supported this worldwide trend of democratization. The presence of non-elected members with casting votes in both the Legislature and Cabinet goes against the trend of greater democratization. If our legislature is to become truly democratized, it must reflect the will of the people as expressed in the ballot box.

There has been much concern and widespread debate about a Bill of Rights for the Cayman Islands and how it will impact Caymanian culture, values and morals. After a great deal of public discussion and education, we believe there is now general agreement that we should have a Bill of Rights, although I should add that there remain abiding reservations about its inclusion in the Constitution. Hopefully, this particular issue will be resolved during these talks. I should say, however, that support for a Bill of Rights is largely contingent on the content of the Bill as Caymanians are concerned to ensure that it does not permit or encourage an undermining of traditional Caymanian values or morals and that it does not result in bizarre judgments or rulings as have occurred in some jurisdictions.

The Government is keenly aware of the local concerns and of the need to ensure that while the Bill of Rights protects the fundamental rights of the individual that the document should recognize and respect the Cayman context in which it will operate. Over the course of the past months, therefore, we have been working on developing a draft Bill of Rights which is intended to do all of the above and this morning we will circulate it to the various delegations present so that it may serve as the basis for the discussions on this subject over the course of these talks. This is a critical issue and we must strive to get it right. I am satisfied that we can, and will.

Ladies and gentlemen, these negotiations represent a golden opportunity for us to refashion our system of governance, to make it relevant to our times and the foreseeable future. Let us make the most of it. In years to come, long after we have passed from the political scene, let history applaud us for having the courage and foresight to have done what is right for the Cayman Islands. It is not so much about our future but that of our children and grandchildren. Let us give them a legacy of which they can be proud.

May the almighty God we serve, who has guided and protected the people of these Islands since they were first settled more than three hundred years ago, guide our deliberations over the coming days. May great Jehovah fill us with the spirit of compromise and the wisdom to make the right decisions as we seek to establish a constitutional framework for the future! I thank you, ladies and gentlemen.