The Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ALP), having introduced the Representation of the People Act in 2001, has become disillusioned with the future of elections and Constitutional guarantees in Antigua and Barbuda, under a UPP regime.
On Wednesday, November 16 2011, the United Progressive Party (UPP) Government, under the leadership of Mr. Baldwin Spencer, successfully changed the elections law, stomping on the Constitutional protections which it offered to the Supervisor of Elections. The 21 amendments which the UPP regime succeeded in ramming through the Parliament, because of its majority, also undermine the built-in independence and autonomy that the 2001 Representation of the People Act provided to the Antigua and Barbuda Electoral Commission (ABEC) and its Commissioners.
When the Parliament of Antigua and Barbuda convened on Wednesday, Mr. Spencer took one hour to introduce the amendments, contending that they were benign and would not do any harm to the electoral process.
Comrade Lester Bird, sitting across from the Prime Minister as the Leader of the Opposition, challenged Mr. Spencer without the benefit of the microphone. Mr. Spencer was reminded that Mr. Bird participated in the Constitutional talks at Lancaster House, back in 1980, and that his knowledge of the Constitution of Antigua and Barbuda is more than academic. Mr. Bird was challenging Mr. Spencer on the independence which the Supervisor of Elections was granted under Section 67 of the Antigua and Barbuda Constitution of 1981. Mr. Bird insisted that Mr. Spencer’s interpretation of the constitutional provision, covering the Supervisor of Elections, was absolutely off-base. Mr. Bird suggested that Mr. Spencer needed to suspend the session and to allow greater consultation among the political parties and the public before moving forward on any revision. The draft legislation was distributed on Friday, November 11, 2011, for the first time, allowing no time for public consultation, two working-days later.
Comrade Molwyn Joseph, one of three ALP speakers who took the floor later on Wednesday, also began his presentation by pointing to the deliberate misinterpretation of the Constitution by the UPP regime. The Supervisor of Elections, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Ombudsman and certain other public officers are provided autonomy and independence under the Constitution so that they may perform their assigned duties without any interference by the Executive or Cabinet. Though the UPP parliamentarians appeared not to be persuaded, it was very evident that Mr. Molwyn Joseph’s analysis and conclusion were correct. The amendments place the Supervisor of Elections in the same position as any worker on contract for seven years, whose contract is renewable depending on the satisfaction of the political directorate. “That cannot be right,” the Representative from St. Mary’s North insisted.
Comrade Asot Michael spoke for one hour, attacking the amendments as being vindictive, wicked and intended to do harm to outstanding citizens and workers who have performed their jobs in a sterling manner. The St. Peter’s Representative pointed to the three-member Tribunal that sat in judgment over the electoral commissioners last October 2010. The Tribunal concluded that Mr. Gerald Watt, Mr. Paddy James and the Supervisor of Elections performed their functions well. Were it not for the breakdown of a printer, the Tribunal was certain that the election of 2009 would have been well-conducted, the Tribunals Report read.
Yet, the amendments have been designed, Mr. Asot Michael noted, to punish Miss Lorna Simon and Sir Gerald Watt. He pointed to the requirement, inserted in the amended version of the elections law, that all five current Electoral Commissioners “shall cease to hold office” when the amendments become the law. Sir Gerald Watt will therefore cease to be a Commissioner, and he is far too old under the amended version to be re-appointed. “This requirement is taking place at the same time that a case is pending in the Court to determine whether the demotion of Sir Gerald Watt, from Chairman to Ordinary Member of the Commission, is lawful,” Mr. Michael noted. Another lawsuit is likely to be filed against the Prime Minister.
Mr. Robin Yearwood, who also spoke on Wednesday, implored the UPP leader to withdraw the draft legislation and to allow greater consideration and input from the public and the political parties. The Representative from St. Phillips North said that he was bitterly disappointed with the great rush that has been exhibited when another election is not due for nearly 30 months. Mr. Yearwood was relentless in his criticism of the UPP leader for his attack on the Supervisor of Elections who has a long record of public performance that is sterling. He called their actions wicked and vindictive.
Earlier in the day, on Wednesday, when the Honourable Asot Michael was through speaking, the Leader of the Opposition led a walk-out from Parliament. He said those who wish to remain could do so, but he was far too disgusted by what was taking place, and what was planned, to stay behind. The Chairman of the Party, Honourable Gaston Browne, the Representatives from Rural South and City South accompanied the Leader. Later in the evening, during the Committee stage, when the bill is examined paragraph by paragraph, the Honourable Robin Yearwood and the Honourable Molwyn Joseph staged their own walk-out.
The attempt by the UPP to remove from office, by parliamentary actions, officials with whom they disagree, but whom they were unable to remove using available legal means, attests to a desperate political party that has lost tremendous amounts of support. The UPP must resort to trampling on hard-working citizens and the Constitution while subverting the law in order to give itself advantages which, it believes, will allow it to manipulate an electoral process. The UPP is driven by a single motive: to be victorious in any subsequent election at any cost.