Sunday, September 09, 2007

Full Internal Self-Government


By Don Mitchell CBE QC,

Chairman of the Constitutional and Electoral Reform Commission, 2006

9 September 2007
Dame Dr Bernice Lake QC and other members of the Concerned Citizens Group on the Chief Minister’s Negotiating Team have raised this issue of “going for full internal self-government”.  They have argued that it is fundamental to their involvement with the Team.  Members of the Team have shown a willingness to embrace the proposal. I have objected to the proposal as a mere cliché, meaning it is not really helpful to our present exercise for constitutional advance.  On further reflection, I realize my objection is more fundamental.  I want to set out some of my thoughts here.
Full internal self-government in a British colonial context means having the people be responsible for all aspects of their government, save, traditionally, for security, defence, and diplomatic relations.  This was the constitutional relationship that we had when we were part of the Associated State of St Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla in 1967. 
Members of the CCG have argued that we cannot go to the British to negotiate unless we have settled the fundamental issue of the type of relationship that we want to have with them.  They have suggested that the issue must be spelled out clearly first.  Only then can we sensibly begin to design a Constitution that reflects our true needs.  They have urged that, short of independence, the only realistic constitutional situation for Anguilla is full internal self-government[1].  Their position, if I can paraphrase, is that the piecemeal approach in the Constitutional Commission's Report is flawed and needs to be abandoned.
The Hon Chief Minister was motivated to postpone the planned discussions with the British.  Not all of us were happy with this development.  Some of us have major reservations about the postponement.
Some members of the team have argued that we cannot begin to draft a new Constitution providing for full internal self-government unless we first put to the people the choices they have.  Do they want to remain a full British Colony?  Are they ready for full independence?  Or, would they want to advance to an intermediate stage of full internal self-government?  This, for shorthand, can be described as the Hon Eddie Baird’s position. 
Others on the Team have argued that since the government and the opposition are in favour of full internal self-government, and since the people have in the views reflected in the Constitutional Commission’s Report essentially expressed themselves in favour of this advance, it is appropriate that we draft a suitable Constitution and put it to the people in a referendum. This can be described as the Hon Hubert Hughes’ and the Hon Chief Minister’s position[2].  
Others have urged that we cannot proceed further unless we see separate draft Constitutions for Anguilla demonstrating all the features of the various options.  Only then will people begin to appreciate what the options are.   This can be described as the Rev Dr Niles’ position. 
All these different suggestions involve postponing the advances that were recommended by the Constitutional Commission’s Report.  This postponement may last for years.  This delay is not acceptable to some of us.
There are major problems with this idea of delaying constitutional advance until we have got full internal self-government enshrined in our Constitution.  There is no doubt that Anguillians are ready for full internal self-government.  That is what the Commission found.  That is reflected in the Commission’s Report.  What the Commission also found was that this advance will only be acceptable to the people if it is balanced by a complete plank of checks and balances on the powers of the government.  This condition or reservation was deep-seated and widespread, and came up in one forum of discussion after another.
Full internal self-government does not just mean more power in the hands of Ministers.  It also means that the people and their democratic institutions share power with Ministers in exchange for the British giving up their previous supervisory powers.  It means that we will no longer rely on the energy and courage of an individual Governor to restrain Ministers.  We have learned to our cost that does not work.   We will replace that failed system by an improved one of increased accountability and transparency on the part of Ministers. 
Full internal self-government does not only mean excluding the Governor from Cabinet.  It also means
  • Ministers having to expose their workings more to the people;
  • an independent Civil Service Commission, and Police Service Commission taking the place of the Governor’s discretion;
  • having a Freedom of Information Act so people can find out more easily what is going on;
  • putting in place anti-corruption and integrity legislation and institutions;
  • having an Ombudsman to help the people get justice when the administration behaves improperly;
  • making Cabinet meetings generally open to the public;
  • prohibiting sale of government land without a resolution of the House of Assembly;
  • making the Planning Committee independent of Ministerial over-rule, but with provisions for the citizen to appeal unreasonable decisions to an appeal tribunal and to the court;
  • entrenching the grant of work permits and Belonger certificates in professional boards and tribunals, and not subject to political influence. 
Without these checks and balances, full internal self-government could result in increased abuse of the people.  It has done so nearly everywhere else.
What is required is a trial period of effective internal self-government.  The Constitutional and Electoral Reform Commission Report recommends a series of reforms that place practical self-government in the hands of Ministers and other Commissions and institutions.  If it works for a period of time, then the people will almost certainly have developed sufficient confidence in our politicians.  They may then be ready to entrust them with the responsibilities that go with full internal self-government.
It is not that Anguillians are not ready for full internal self-government.  On the contrary, Anguillians consider that it is long overdue.  It is that the people are not sure that Ministers are ready for the responsibilities that full internal self-government will bring.  Anguillians have more reason to fear political abuse from their own Ministers than from British neglect or abuse.  That is one of the reasons why neither the people nor the Commissioners advanced the idea of proposing “full internal self-government” in the Report.  The Commissioners were satisfied that a majority of Anguillians want a reduction in the powers of the Governor, with more powers and responsibilities given to Ministers, but with checks and balances in place to ensure those powers are not abused. 
This last can be called Rev Cecil Weekes’ and Don Mitchell’s position.

[1]               It is fundamental to their argument that the British have promised, as seen in the contents of the Anguilla Act of 1981, that Anguilla would be encouraged to advance to full internal self-government.  Indeed, it is interesting that in its glossary of terms of terms relating to the islands of the Commonwealth Caribbean, the Library of Congress records that in the view of the Library at least, Anguilla was, as late as the year 1987, still an Associated State. 
[2]               This is what happened in Gibraltar in late 2006.