THE news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II was only a day old before Prime Minister Philip “Brave” Davis floated the prospect of The Bahamas going without a monarch altogether.
It all seemed a bit quick, perhaps, given that people were still being invited to sign books of condolences. In terms of timing, it could have been somewhat more diplomatic.
The announcement also shows mixed signals coming from the government.
On Friday, Mr Davis said: “I will have a referendum and the Bahamian people will have to say to me, ‘yes’.”
He also said: “The only challenge with us moving to a republic is that I can’t, as much as I would wish to do it, I cannot do it without your consent.”
Asked if a referendum was on the table, he said: “For me, it always is but again it is our people who will have to decide.”
That word always might not be entirely accurate. It was only in December last year that Mr Davis’ press secretary, Clint Watson, said that making The Bahamas a republic was not on the agenda of the Davis administration.
He said: “It’s not on our agenda right now. However, the Bahamian people can change that if they determine this is what they want to do. It would have to be something the Bahamian people request and put on the government’s agenda.”
There doesn’t appear to have been a particular outcry to push the matter onto the agenda. No marches. No protests. The Bahamian people appear to have not been required after all for the Prime Minister’s administration to do an about-face.
So who is championing the call for a republic? Well, Foreign Affairs Minister Fred Mitchell had previously lamented that he couldn’t seem to convince people of his desire for a republic. Obie Wilchcombe, the Social Services Minister, mustered enough determination to say perhaps we should think about the way forward.
Elsewhere, former Prime Ministers Perry Christie and Hubert Ingraham were asked, with Mr Christie non-committal, and Mr Ingraham saying he likes The Bahamas the way it is now.
Given the success rates of referendum votes in The Bahamas previously, that’s not an overwhelming wave of enthusiasm to present to the people.
So how have we reached a point where the Prime Minister has committed to a referendum on a major constitutional issue?
Well, consider this – just last week, columnist Alicia Wallace noted a comment from the Prime Minister with regard to the issue of marital rape. When asked if he would criminalise marital rape, Mr Davis said it was not included in the party’s Blueprint for Change. She noted this seemed to suggest it was not a priority – the party did not commit to it, so the administration would not commit to it.
Pick up that same Blueprint for Change and search for the word “republic” and you won’t find it anywhere. Yet the same administration is now floating a referendum on an issue the party did not commit to.
It gets more curious still. Look on today’s front page and you’ll find that on the issue of marital rape, Mr Wilchcombe is touting draft legislation on the issue and is hoping for feedback “from all sides”, despite the legislation not yet being available to view, and despite Mr Wilchcombe last month having said he intended to meet church leaders on the issue. Now he says he’ll go to talk to them this Thursday.
None of this looks like coherent governance. Mr Davis had said himself marital rape wasn’t on his government’s agenda – and the backlash to that comment seemed to make it suddenly appear on the agenda, but not with any wholehearted commitment.
So was Mr Davis simply trying to avoid that same kind of backlash? Was he saying that the administration is considering it simply to mollify any potential critics? Seemingly not – he didn’t say we may consider it, he didn’t say it was perhaps something to be done – he said he will have a referendum.
Well, if that’s so, let the debate begin – but we start this referendum at a point with no positions outlined, no proposals put forward, and no one looking to lead the charge.
Given how previous referendum votes finished, that’s not a promising place to start.