It is a rather troubling development- a new wrinkle, if you will, in this referendum saga. And it is enough to give the public “What-will-be-the-question” whiplash. For those of you who have not yet had your fill of the twists and turns in the referendum campaign, here is the new twist. According to learned attorney at law, Mr. Charlesworth Tabor, and equally learned social and political thinker, Mr. Juno Samuel, the new referendum question is essentially illegal because it is a change in wording to the original question passed by parliament, and no extra-parliamentary action is lawful. According to these highly esteemed gentlemen, no attorney general or prime minister or legal scholars in the ministry of legal affairs can change the wording of any law that has been passed by parliament. Only parliament can alter the wording.
Here is the wording, as passed by parliament, which was supposed to appear on the referendum ballot: “Do you approve the Constitutional Referendum (Amendment) Bill 2018 for an Act proposing to alter the Constitution of Antigua and Barbuda?” Not surprisingly, as in everything having to do with this referendum, there were many who thought that that question was too broad, and ambiguous, and it could be misconstrued. Many thought that it needed to be more specific. According to Attorney Tabor, in not so many words, a referendum question needs to be clear and simple, and he cited England’s Brexit referendum question for its clarity and said that only the British parliament could make changes to the wording of that question.
Anyway, with unusual alacrity, the legal folks charged with the responsibility of the ballot question, responded to the public concerns, and changed the wording to, “Do you approve the Constitution of Antigua and Barbuda (Amendment) Bill, 2018 which is a bill for an Act to alter the Constitution of Antigua and Barbuda to terminate Her Majesty in Council (also known as Privy Council) as the final court of appeal for Antigua and Barbuda and to replace it with the Caribbean Court of Justice (also known as the CCJ)?” Initially, the change received widespread approbation, . . .that is, until this new bump in the process. Talk about something strange happening on the road to the referendum!
Of course, the question on many minds is: “What do we do now?” If the question is illegal, then it renders the referendum null and void. If the body charged with shepherding the referendum process chooses to proceed with the referendum and the aforementioned new question nonetheless, it certainly opens the possibility that the result can be challenged in the courts . . . perhaps even all the way to the (gasp) Privy Council. If the referendum folks choose to stick with the new question, then according to Messrs. Tabor and Samuel they will have to go back to parliament so that the original question can be lawfully changed to the new one. Of course, that would mean that the referendum date would have to be pushed back. If the referendum folks choose to go through with the referendum on November 6, the esteemed gentlemen are suggesting that they revert to the original referendum question that was passed by our parliament. Hmmm!
We are no experts on these matters, and we certainly trust that the brouhaha surrounding the referendum question will be resolved before November 6, Referendum Day. After all, we do not want to go through a process that may ultimately be invalidated. We shudder at the fallout – waste of time and resources, not to mention ‘referendum fatigue.’ Which begs the question (a different question): On such an important matter like a constitutional change paving the way for us to replace or stay with the Privy Council as our apex court, why is there a nagging feeling in some circles that the referendum folks are amateurish, and dotting the ‘I’s and crossing the ‘T’s by trial and error? It is a vexing question!