Barbados’s Long-drawn-out Promise of a Republic

By Cynthia Barrow-Giles , 30 August
Parliament of Barbados (photo credit: Barbados Today)
Parliament of Barbados (photo credit: Barbados Today)

Barbados is expected to become a parliamentary republic in November 2021 and, immediately afterwards, embark on the process of drafting a new constitution. Despite the pitfalls of the government’s approach – especially its announcement of the transition and subsequent constitutional overhaul without public consultation – this process, if successful, may provide the impetus for renewed calls for the termination of the remaining constitutional monarchies in the English-Speaking Caribbean – writes Professor Cynthia Barrow-Giles.

A Barbadian Head of State

Barbados is expected to leave the British Monarchy and become a Republic in November 2021. Since Barbados’s independence, Barbados becoming a republic has taken centre stage in every major constitutional reform effort. While other issues, such as the nature of the electoral system, have been considered, a consistent thread throughout the three major constitutional reform exercises undertaken since 1966 is the appropriateness of the Queen as Head of State, represented by the Governor General of Barbados.

In September 2020, the government of Barbados announced that by November 2021 (55 years after independence), the country would terminate its present constitutional status and become a republic. Barbados is not the first Commonwealth Caribbean country to consider this: the continued symbolic presence of the British crown in the constitutional makeup of Commonwealth Caribbean states has been repeatedly placed on reform agendas across the region. Though few states have actually made that change, various constitutional reform commissions – for example the St. Lucia Constitutional Reform Commission in 2011, and the St. Vincent and Grenadines Constitutional Review Commission in 2006 – have recommended the adoption of parliamentary republics. In the case of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, further developments were forestalled after the public rejected a proposed constitutional amendment.

Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley announced, in May 2021, the establishment of a Republican Status Transition Advisory Committee (RSTAC) with the mandate to plan and manage the transition of Barbados from a constitutional monarchy to a republic by 30 November 2021. In defending the government’s position on the development, the Prime Minister stated that, “The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind. Barbadians want a Barbadian head of state” and that, “This is the ultimate statement of confidence in who we are and what we are capable of achieving. Hence, Barbados will take the next logical step toward full sovereignty and become a republic by the time we celebrate our 55th anniversary of independence.” Further, the Prime Minister announced that, immediately after the transition, Barbados would embark on the process of drafting a new constitution under the leadership of the Attorney General.

While the Prime Minister’s party holds a sufficient legislative majority to approve a constitutional amendment, many had anticipated prior wide-spread public consultation.

In her National Day of Significance (July 26) address, the Prime Minister explained that the government had accepted with minor changes the recommendations of the 1998 Constitutional Review Commission report that Barbados would become a parliamentary republic with a non-executive president elected by an electoral college and serving for a renewable four-year term of office. While the Prime Minister’s party, the Barbados Labour Party, holds a sufficient majority in both houses of the Barbadian parliament to approve a constitutional amendment, many had anticipated that the new parliamentary republic constitution would have followed wide-spread consultation with the public. There remains grave concerns that the declared process is untidy, as essentially two constitutions will be enacted in a relatively short period of time.

There are important substantive and procedural issues to be resolved to ensure a smooth transition to a republic, but before turning to this issue and that of the envisaged constitutional reform, it is useful to briefly sketch the main contours of constitutional debate and developments in Barbados, especially on the termination of the constitutional monarchy. 

Earlier Post-Independence Efforts at Reform: A Failed Enterprise

On 30 November 1966, Barbados achieved independence and adopted the Westminster parliamentary system of governance (along similar lines earlier adopted by both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago in 1962). In the post-independence period, the two dominant political parties – the Barbados Labour Party and the Democratic Labour Party – operated with the Governor General as the representative of the British monarch with prerogative powers. For half a century, the model endured with relative stability and few changes to the constitutional fabric of the state. Indeed, the most notable amendments were those of 1974, but these did not alter the existing parliamentary arrangements.

Against the backdrop of increasing political and socio-economic radicalism, the black power movements in the English-Speaking Caribbean, and the transition of both Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago to republics, the Barbados Labour Party administration appointed in 1977 a Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) to consider changes to the Barbados Constitution. The Commission was specifically charged with recommending changes, if any, that would bolster the democratic character of the state by ensuring “multiparty parliamentary democracy is given such constitutional protection as can effectively prevent its destruction.”  It was obvious then that the governing elite did not anticipate any deviation from the adopted Westminster model of government.

In its 1979 report, the Constitutional Review Commission noted Barbadians’ opposition to “an increasingly remote, hereditary, non-Barbadian monarch”.

In its 1979 report, the Commission noted that racism in the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom’s entry into the European Economic Community, Barbadians’ increasing affinity to Africa and their opposition to “an increasingly remote, hereditary, non-Barbadian monarch” informed the need to examine the appropriate constitutional form for the country. The report further weighed the overall support for the substitution of a national of high standing for the monarch with the perceived negative impact of removing a Head of State who stood “outside of and in fact beyond the reach of local political differences.” Equally important were regional considerations: the CRC noted that given the difficult times that some Caribbean countries were experiencing, there were legitimate concerns that to embark upon momentous constitutional change would invite potential instability in the body politic of the country.

The Commission therefore concluded that the constitutional monarchy had worked well for Barbados and rejected the contention that the repatriation of the Barbados constitution, with a ceremonial president replacing the Governor General, would in fact fundamentally alter the existing political practices, in as much as “there is already our own man at the top”. The CRC further contended that, contrary to popular opinion, the political reality was that the Governor General operated under the instructions of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers, rather than at the behest of the monarch.

The 1998 CRC: A Call for a Parliamentary Republic

It was not until 1996 that any further noteworthy effort was made to engage in constitutional restructuring, with the appointment of yet another Constitution Review Commission with an almost unaltered mandate to the previous Commission. Importantly, however, this CRC was required to address the question of the system of government and to make recommendations for a more “effective and efficient government” in order to position Barbados for the future. The 1998 CRC report diverged from the 1979 report: its flagship recommendation was that Barbados become a parliamentary republic with a non-executive president elected by an electoral college comprising the membership of the bicameral legislature. The Commission reasoned that Barbadians were not only confident that they could manage all aspects of their national affairs, but that the existing record of all native-born Governors General showed the kind of impartiality expected of the office.

A Stalled Process: Waiting to Exhale

Between 1998 and 2021, no further constitutional developments took place, although the Owen Arthur administration (1994-2008) drafted a – still not public – parliamentary republic constitution in 2004 (Republic of Barbados Constitution Act) to repeal and replace the 1966 constitution. At the time, the administration had promised a referendum on the issue of a Barbadian Head of State. It passed the Referendum Act 2005, which made provision for a referendum on the single question of whether Barbados should become a parliamentary republic with the Barbadian Head of State as President. This referendum, however, never took place.

The RSTAC and the Parliamentary Republic: Stage 1

While all political parties and public opinion have supported the necessity of the change, the manner in which the September 2020 announcement was made, the appointment of the RSTAC in May of 2021, and the lack of consultation prior to the proposed date for the transition to a parliamentary republic have not been without controversy, with many alleging undemocratic tendencies.

Opposition to the announcement is mounted on two fundamental grounds. The first relates to the demand for a referendum which was promised by former Prime Minister Owen Arthur. The basic premise is that constitution making ought not to occur without inclusiveness, representativeness, and participation. To be sure, the current approach is markedly different to previous exercises and to that conducted in other Caribbean jurisdictions. This government-appointed committee is not the typical bi-partisan broad-based constitutional commission or committee charged with consulting citizens at home and abroad on a new, reformed or parliamentary republic constitution. The second main contention is the democratic requirement for consultation on widescale constitutional reform prior to the transition to a republic. Indeed, the argument is that the process ought to be exhaustive, leading to an overhaul of the constitution and engaging in substantial reform pertaining to rights, the existing relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government, as well as the reform of the judiciary, among other governance related issues.

Critics of the lack of consultation on the process leading to the 30 November 2021 declaration of a republic point to the 2019 judicial decision of the Caribbean Court of Justice (the final court of Appeal for both Barbados and Jamaica), in which Justice Peter Jamadar noted that “The requirement for broad-based participation in national decision making, can only be realized if all relevant stakeholders are meaningfully included in the dialogical process of consultation. No relevant stakeholder should be excluded from this process….”  Critics further contend that the failure to engage in broad-based consultation on the type of republic, among other things, represents an attempt on the part of the administration to amass power (though no concrete evidence of such has been produced) and was done in a non-transparent manner inconsistent with more contemporary understandings of democracy.

Though a failed referendum would not have implications for the constitutionality of the proposed change, it appears that the government prefers to avoid the risk of a “no”-vote.

The current Constitution of Barbados has no referendum provisions, unlike several other Commonwealth Caribbean countries which have entrenched provisions that can only be altered by a special majority vote in a referendum. Though a failed referendum would not have implications for the constitutionality of the proposed change, nonetheless it appears that the government prefers to avoid the risk of a “no”-vote or low voter turnout (similar to the low turnout and voter rejection of two referendums in Grenada in 2016 and 2018, though on the question of replacing the British Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice).

The ten-member RSTAC, chaired by a former Governor of the Central Bank of Barbados, Marion Williams, has a fairly broad mandate, including making recommendations on the type of presidency and the constitutional requirements necessary to effect a transition, and to determine the ceremonial and legal implications of the presidential status. However, since July 2021, the RSTAC mandate appears to have morphed into merely advising on the required reform deemed necessary to achieve a parliamentary republic status, and the drafting of a Charter after consultation with citizens.  Prime Minister Mia Mottley explained that “if we are going to have a new Constitution eventually that is going to reflect who we are in the third decade of the 21st century, rather than who we are in the middle of the 20th century, that that should be first and foremost guided by the kind of person that we want to be and the kind of people.  Not legal language; not justiciable language, but a Charter, a set of pledges and promises as Bajans to each other, no more than two or three pages….” That Charter (the embodiment of the people of Barbados) will be the basis for further constitutional reform post-transition to a republic. In other words, the die has been cast and Barbados will become a republic on 30 November 2021 with the promise of a Charter (a pledge) bridging the gap between the transition parliamentary republic constitution and what is still an unknown but promised constitution in the near future: a reformed constitution that will redefine the role of the government, and improve the governance arrangements of the country. 

The RSTAC and the Parliamentary Republic: Stage 2

In an unusual approach to constitutional reform, the government’s approach is to engage in a two-step process: first establishment of a republic, and a comprehensive constitutional reform. The second, more exhaustive phase – that is estimated will take between twelve to fifteen months from November 30 – will emulate the various activities of previous CRCs elsewhere in the Commonwealth Caribbean. In her July 26 address, the Prime Minister announced “from December 1 the journey of the settlement of the new Constitution of Barbados, which will be the subject of extensive consultation and communication with the people of this nation.” This is a source of some concern as there are no guarantees other than the administration’s promise that meaningful and wide-ranging changes will be made based on the recommendations of the RSTAC after consultation with the various publics.

Conclusion

While constitution making in the Caribbean over the last two decades has tended to be more consultative in its approach, the RSTAC process is an example of a new exercise in constitution remaking: more efficient and more determined than before. No previous constitutional exercise since the 1970s has resulted in the establishment of a republic in the Commonwealth Caribbean. Despite the pitfalls of the approach, if successful it may well provide the impetus for renewed calls for the termination of the remaining constitutional monarchies in the English-Speaking Caribbean. To be sure it is envisaged that the post-transition period to the parliamentary republic on 30 November 2021 will be marked by a greater level of consultation as envisaged by the CCJ in its 2019 judgment and which will no doubt go a substantial way to alleviating the concerns of the general public on the lack of democratic consultation in the process leading to November 30, 2021. That the seemingly patchy and swift process leading to November 2021 did not instil the much-needed confidence in constitution making that would have been ideal is evident, notwithstanding the general support for the termination of the role of the Queen in the political arrangement of the country. It is hoped that the promise of more sustained and systematic public engagement beginning January 2022 will forestall the disenchantment and opposition unleashed by the chosen approach to constitution making.

Professor Cynthia Barrow-Giles is a senior lecturer in Political Science at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies where she has also served as Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Head of Department of Government, Sociology and Social Work.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.

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