By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Staff Reporter
NO date has been set for this year’s constitutional referendum on gender discrimination, Minister of National Security Bernard Nottage confirmed yesterday.
However, Constitutional Commission Chairman Sean McWeeney projected that four bills could be tabled in the House of Assembly by the end of next month.
He added that a public education campaign could not be launched until the bills that will set out referendum questions had been tabled.
Speaking about concerns over the timeline for public education, Dr Nottage said: “No date has been set for the referendum yet. I’m responsible for elections so I would know what the date is when it is set, but no date has been set.
He added: “This (referendum) would have to be a constitutional matter and if you recall the Prime Minister indicated that the Constitutional Committee was to study the matter. I expect them to give a thorough education process to ensure the public fully understands prior to the referendum.”
In an interview with The Tribune yesterday, Mr McWeeney said he has already reviewed the first draft of the legislation that will frame questions designed to remove gender discrimination from the constitution.
“I expect,” said Mr McSweeney, “the bills will probably be tabled in parliament sometime in the latter part of March. Any public education will be deferred until the bills are tabled in parliament, to have public education you need to develop it around the actual bills. Fortunately, we’re going over a lot of old ground. The only issues that are going to be in this referendum are going to be gender equality related.
“The first three are designed to bring gender equality with respect to the granting of citizenship, and the fourth relates to outlawing gender discrimination generally under Article 26, the word sex is going to be inserted,” Mr McSweeney said.
The Constitutional Commission submitted its report on July 8, in time for the 40th anniversary of independence, and nine months after it was formed by the government.
Listed in descending order of priority, the top four areas for which the Constitutional Commission recommends reforms include: amending citizenship provisions to achieve gender-neutrality and full equality between men and women with respect to the acquisition or transmission of nationality; expanding the definition of discrimination in Article 26 to include “sex” as a prohibited ground; creating a constitutionally and operationally autonomous Director of Public Prosecutions with control over public prosecutions; and creating an independent and constitutionally secure Election and Boundaries Commission, with responsibility for the conduct of elections and reviewing the boundaries of constituencies.
The report stated that the recommendation to expand the definition of discrimination to include “sex” had created “deep” division over whether this term’s inclusion would open the door for rights based on sexual preference. As a result, the commission also recommended further amendments to ensure that any law prohibiting same-sex marriage would not be deemed unconstitutional by the amendments.
Yesterday, Mr McWeeney said that while the commission stands by its recommendation, it is unclear whether or not there will be further amendments in the final draft.
“I know,” he said, “the commission recommended that a specific clause be inserted to make it abundantly clear that the interjection of ‘sex’ was not intended to open floodgates to same-sex marriage. Some legal opinions are that that’s not really necessary, and that the Marriages Act declares it to be unlawful already.
“Some lawyers are saying that it’s overkill, others are saying to just put it in, and some people believe that it’s a matter that should be left to the courts to interpret.
He added: “The commission still stands by the recommendation that we made, but whether or not that will be included in the final draft of the bill, I can’t say.”