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Reflections on Referendum 2016
By Bishop Laish Boyd
The results of the Referendum 2016 are in, and the will of a majority of those who voted is clear: all four proposed amendments have been rejected overwhelmingly. The country has had a season of passionate and broad discussion. This is healthy and is the sort of dialogue that deepens democracy and that causes the country to grow – and that needs to continue. There were unfortunate things said, implied and done by persons on both sides. Thankfully, those negatives by no means represented the views of the majority of the country or of those who voted.
People have a right to hold, to discuss and to vote their views, and to follow their conscience. I am a proud and responsible Bahamian who informed myself on the issues, held a position supporting all four bills, and who voted accordingly.
In my opinion, rejecting the 4 amendments was a fundamental mistake of huge proportions. Only time will reveal to us the vast and far-reaching implications of the error; but we accept the will of the majority in a democratic society and we move on.
The four bills addressed three separate but interrelated inequities in our Constitution and one “catch-all” objective, all seeking to create fairness for both genders. They sought to establish equality in the law for men and women. “Equality” does not mean seeking to make men and women the same; for we know that men and women, though complementary, are not the same. “Equality” means seeking to give the same rights and privileges to pass on citizenship to both men and women – which the present Constitution does not do – and then establishing clearly that no one must be discriminated against because of sex, i.e., being male or female. To have an environment now where this is still not the case constitutionally, for us and for those born after June 7th, 2016, is truly unfortunate. The Bahamas has taken several steps backwards by missing the opportunity to right some basic wrongs.
I am convinced that most Bahamians, in their hearts, support the principle of equal treatment for men and women, and would want to see it enshrined as a reality in the Constitution, since that is our Supreme law. However, for whatever tapestry of reasons, we have the result that we have. In the post-mortem of this great event there are a number of factors which are worth noting – in my humble opinion:
- a) Despite the efforts of the Constitutional Commission and other educational outreach, much of the opposition to the bills was founded in a failure to see what the bills actually sought to accomplish. In addition, some persons were ascribing devious and hidden agendas, malicious intent, and seeing ulterior motives and goals that simply were not the case. Some other persons were also forecast that there might be unintended and unforeseen moral consequences to Bill Four (4) in particular, such as the introduction of same sex marriage. It did not help that distinguished and prominent jurists held widely divergent views on the need for, and effect of, the proposed amendments.
- b) There is a high level of mistrust of all government for various reasons. This was evident as well in the 2002 Referendum, which sought approval for the very same issues, among several other non-controversial proposals.
At the time of the Referendum 2002, the Free National Movement was the governing party. I am of the view that the process toward the Referendum then was rushed and that there was no adequate period of information-sharing and education leading up to it. This weakened the whole venture. However, given the substance of the questions for consideration in Referendum 2002, I thought that the questions should have been given affirmative response so that the overall objective could have been achieved.
Also, in 2002 both major political parties agreed to the need for constitutional reform in the form of the questions posed. They both voted in favour of the legislation in Parliament and supported going to referendum. However, once outside of Parliament, the Progressive Liberal Party members then worked against that referendum and failed to vote for it. Consequently, this year, the same PLP had great difficulty gaining the support of many people in Referendum 2016.
Mistrust also arises because in 2013 the Government engaged in what it later called an “opinion poll” on the question of Web Shop gambling and then, contrary to what it has promised, did not follow the will of the majority of those voting.
- c) Therefore, many persons used Referendum 2016 to “pay back” The PLP Government for 2002 and for the way it disregarded the result of the “Gaming Referendum.” They voted “to spite” the Government, as we say in The Bahamas. This is unfortunate, as acting out of spite in any circumstances is wrong, un-Christ-like and unproductive.
- d) Whatever the motivation, intention or source of information, it was also most unfortunate that a “concession of defeat” of Referendum 2016 came from a PLP party official rather than from the Prime Minister of the country. This seemed odd. It was especially unnerving and disconcerting when you note that, at that point in the evening, relatively few New Providence results – by far the largest voting block – had been released. This led many people to wonder what was going on and, it does not help the overall climate of mistrust.
- e) Leading up to the Referendum 2016 there was too much politicizing of the process by persons on both sides of the debate. Now, after the event, blame-throwing or mud-slinging have already begun. THIS IS OF NO VALUE AND POINTLESS. IT MUST STOP AND WE NEED TO MOVE ON.
- f) Nagging at the back of my mind is the fact that in 2014 there are 27 countries in the world which do not give men and women equal rights to pass on citizenship to their children with a non-citizen spouse. Except for Barbados and Kiribati, The Bahamas is the only non-Muslim country in the group. These are countries that practice Sharia Law and whose societies give little rights and no equality to women. With the greatest respect, this is not the company we want to keep. You should note that Barbados and Kiribati are well on their way along the process of modifying their laws.
It is disconcerting and heartbreaking to know that it will be many years before any government can make another attempt at this exercise. We have lost the opportunity which June 7th, 2016, provided. Meanwhile, all of us and our children and grandchildren, will have to continue to have inequality in the provisions of the Constitution.
The Referendum is over but the manifold social and economic problems are still very much upon us. I am suggesting that we now have a moral obligation as Church, as church leaders and as a society to continue and to “ramp up” our efforts to tackle these. If we are afraid of the possibility of same-sex marriage, then let us work harder to strengthen family life and to stabilize the institution of traditional marriage, to build mutual respect, cooperation, respect for law and order and the community spirit of helping one another.
Unemployment is high, hunger and needs abound, people are being murdered, young girls are being impregnated by much older men, spousal and child abuse is on the rise. The list goes on and on.
Let us all work harder out of love for God, for country and for Christian ideals, rather than working hard for fear of the possibility of something contrary to them happening.
We have a country to build and I invite all Bahamians and residents to join in this noble effort to heal and to build our beloved Bahamaland.