In March 2017, the Constitutional and Electoral Reform Committee presented the government of Anguilla with a 256 page Report. It included a draft law to create a Boundaries Revision Committee and a draft Elections Act designed to implement the recommendations in the 2017 Report. Also included was a draft new Anguilla Constitution which was intended to show what the recommendations would look like when enacted. The Report acknowledged that experts would need to revise the submitted drafts.
Over the following months, there were occasional announcements that government accepted the Report and intended to ask the British to implement its recommendations. Then, in September 2017 Hurricane Irma intervened, and this no doubt set constitutional reform back by several months. There were no public meetings or public discussions of any kind organised by any of government, the opposition, or civil society to discuss the Report or its recommendations.
On the evening of Thursday 24 October 2018, there began to be circulated in Anguilla a draft Order in Council dated 22 October together with a related press release. They revealed that government had decided to make a proposal to the British to change our electoral system and to amend the 1982 Constitution. The press release invited the public to a meeting at the Teachers’ Resource Centre the following Monday to discuss the proposed amendments to the law and the constitution.
Noticeably, the circulated draft Order in Council with the proposed reforms did not include the entire package of recommendations made by the Committee. Additionally, it contained some new proposals that are not found in the Report.
The informed reader would immediately notice that the 22 October draft addressed matters that were of interest only to a politician. So, the franchise would be extended to foreign-born grandchildren of Anguillians; the House of Assembly would be increased by four members at large; Executive Council would be re-branded as the Cabinet; the Cabinet would be increased from the present four members to five; the ‘qualifying date’ for persons being added to the electoral list would no longer be determined by the date the Supervisor of Elections published the list, but would now be determined by the government on the basis of undisclosed principles; and the Chief Minister would now be renamed the Premier. None of the “watchdog institutions” that were at the heart of the 2017 Report were addressed. Prominent among these was the Integrity Commission.
Up to this point, government had not discussed and agreed with either the Opposition or the public any proposal to introduce some only of the constitutional recommendations, while deferring the others to a later date.
On 26 October came the real bombshell. Government published five pieces of correspondence between the Chief Minister and Lord Ahmad, the UK Minister with responsibility for Anguilla and the Overseas Territories. On reading them, one was struck by a number of things. The Chief Minister informed Lord Ahmad that government accepted most of the Committee’s proposals, but not all of them. He gave no hint which ones his administration objected to. He also explained that he needed both the Constitution and the Elections Act to be amended prior to the upcoming 2020 elections. After the elections, he wrote, he would have more time to deal with the remainder of the recommendations for constitutional and electoral reform. But, these initial amendments were a few, he wrote, that were urgent.
On the same day, government circulated a new version of the Order in Council dated 26 October 2018. This was to be introduced into the House of Assembly the following week. There were indications that government wanted the Order in Council signed into law at the December sitting of the Privy Council.
The intelligent reader would at once observe that there was nothing in the interim proposals that was truly urgent. Great political benefit would accrue to whichever political party could claim to be the one that gave the franchise and other constitutional rights to grandchildren. Changing the provision in the Elections Act to permit government to decide what the qualifying date was for new voters was capable of manipulation and misuse. And, anyway, this was not something proposed by the Committee in its 2017 Report.
This is where Pam Webster sprang into action. She worked with Dr Ellis Webster, leader of the Anguilla United Movement, and Sutcliff Hodge, leader of the DOVE party, to organise public resistance to this effort to unilaterally amend our Constitution. She held strategy meetings with the other political leaders. She wrote to the Governor protesting the action contemplated. She chaired a press conference at the Speaker’s conference room at the House of Assembly, at which the united political opposition expressed their fears and concerns. She chaired a public meeting hurriedly called at the Teachers’ Resource Centre, which was well attended and broadcast on at least two of the local radio stations. She wrote a letter to Lord Ahmad expressing her concerns. The other opposition parties also wrote to Lord Ahmad protesting the Chief Minister’s proposals.
Everything went quiet. The Governor replied to her letter saying it was out of his hands. Lord Ahmad said nothing. Then, towards the end of November the Chief Minister announced he was off to London for a series of meetings which would include his proposals for constitutional and electoral reform. We all held our breath. The silence continued.
The Chief Minister came back from London and resumed his usual activities in Anguilla. He said nothing about what had happened in London. The silence was now deafening. You would think that the Anguillian public who had paid for his delegation’s trip to London was entitled to a trip report. But, up to this day, nothing.
In fact, we know what happened. We don’t need a trip report. Though, it would be decent of him to deliver it.
It is a fundamental principle that the UK government will not permit a sitting government of a British Overseas Territory to unilaterally alter the elections law just before a general election. The concern is that any such alteration is calculated to favour the incumbent administration. That is why the alteration always comes into effect after the next elections. On that basis, Lord Ahmad would have told the Chief Minister that he could not agree to the proposed changes to the electoral system, especially to be brought into effect before the next elections.
A second principle is that the UK government will not permit a sitting government to unilaterally make proposals for constitutional or electoral reform. The government must invite the opposition leadership to accompany the government delegation to London. London will interrogate them to ensure that the proposals have cross-party support, and, more importantly, general public support.
These are preconditions for the British government to start looking at proposals for constitutional and electoral reform of a British Overseas Territory. By the time the Chief Minister arrived in London, Lord Ahmad would have been well aware of the outrage being expressed in Anguilla by the opposition and by the public at this attempt to sneak politically expedient amendments into effect behind the backs of the Anguillians.
The Chief Minister would have been told to go back home and not to come back to London with similar proposals unless he brought the opposition with him, and with plenty of evidence that there was general public support for whatever constitutional proposals he was making.
Pam deserves our thanks and appreciation. Her drive and persistence were necessary to bring the situation in Anguilla to the attention of the British government. There is no doubt her initiative saved the day.