PART III- PUBLIC REACTION TO PM SKERRIT’S APPOINTMENT OF SIR. DENNIS BYRON AS GOVERNMENT’S “EXPERT LEGAL COUNSEL” ON ELECTORAL REFORM IN DOMINICA

The debate on cabinet’s appointment of Sir Bryon has been intense. Public reaction on traditional and social media has been diverse and wide-ranging. It is obvious that Dominicans are distressed over the prolonged political gamesmanship of the DLP administration with our Constitution and our electoral laws.

In this edition of our ongoing series on electoral reform in Dominica, we consider some of the comments made in reacting to the Parts I and II of this series.

i. Cabinet has not and cannot appoint Sir Byron as ‘Commissioner.’ There is a consensus that the controversy surrounding the appointment of Sir Byron was created by the reckless utterances of PM Skerrit in referring to Sir Byron as a ‘Sole Commissioner’ for electoral reform in Dominica. More specifically, the erroneous statement of the Prime Minister that once Sir Byron would have submitted his report, “we go to the Parliament to effect the necessary changes as he will recommend to the country to move forward” has raised constitutional alarms among the citizenry.

As Loftus Durand puts it, “PM Skerrit appears to have accepted Sir Byron’s report with recommendations even before it has been documented,” which makes the entire process suspicious. Another commentator on social media painted a darker picture of Sir Byron’s engagement as “digging holes in our constitutional provisions” to suit PM Skerrit and his cabal, and to get the Commission to do exactly as he desires.

ii. The citizens of Dominica do not trust the executive branch of government i.e., the Prime Minister and his cabinet nor do they have confidence in its nominated members to the Commission. Above all, optimism that the President will appoint a professional person to chair the independent Electoral Commission does not exist. In the main, Dominicans do not expect the Prime Minister and his “yes-sah” cabinet to agree to any reasonable, sensible, comprehensive electoral reform that would seek to address the imbalance and unfairness in our electoral system and the level of incumbency advantage. The focus remains, according to SC Astaphan, on the need to protect the “winning legacy” of the Prime Minister. Therefore, for the DLP to entertain any form of electoral reform that would enhance the fairness and credibility of the current system would be akin to political suicide.

iii. There was significant academic debate on the definition of terms such as ‘Commission’ in context of the constitutional mandate of the Electoral Commission and the loose use of the word by the Prime Minister seemingly to mislead the nation.

iv.  The suggestion that we should not welcome the presence and/or the services of Sir Byron because of the manner of his appointment was also made. Some Dominicans are concerned that the Skerrit-led administration seems more willing to engage the services of foreigners over competent local personnel. Moreover, they consider it a waste of scare national resources to engage the services of retired Justice Byron on a matter that has been fully ventilated for an extended period within a wide cross section of the Dominican society. Some commentators reminded us of a plethora of reports already submitted from consultants and observer missions on the very subject, including that of Ms. Mia Motley QC, the OAS, CARICOM, the Commonwealth and also from a local group comprising of churches, businesses, trade unions and civil society to name a few.

v. The frustration of some supporters with the parliamentary opposition has also been evident. They are outraged that the parliamentary opposition has not adopted a more aggressive approach in addressing the political gamesmanship of the DLP with our Constitution and the electoral reform process. The UWP has expressed a desire to meet with Sir Byron when he shows up in the same way that the DFP and APP have.  In spite of their many concerns, the political parties  recognize that engagement with the eminent jurist has potential benefits of producing legally sound recommendations for consideration of  the Electoral Commission before any amendment is presented to parliament by the DLP- led government.

vi. Concerns were also expressed that the proposed amendments to our electoral laws as may be recommended by Sir Byron would be with the intention to amend the laws to take effect retroactively. This was advanced as a possible reason to vitiate the potential outcome of the treating matter filed in 2015 following the December 2014 general elections and which is currently experiencing significant delay in the judicial system.

The audacious untruths of the DLP advocates and mouthpieces that the parliamentary opposition and CCM members have never been interested in electoral reform or have not taken any active steps to advance electoral reform process has been completely debunked as DLP mischief and propaganda.

Yet another untruth concerning the application for injunctive relief filed by Loftus Durand to prevent reform has been dismissed as pure adulterated hogwash. The facts have always been clear. There has never been court a court order or injunction against the passage any legislative amendment. An application to the court is powerless. It has no legal authority without an order from the court. Mr. Durand’s application for an injunction to prevent the government from passing amendments to our electoral laws was specifically related to certain offensive clauses in the Bill presented to parliament for amendment of our electoral laws.  Mr. Durand, the CCM and the Dominican public were particularly concerned about the DLP’s intention to:

(i) the legitimization of the criminal offenses of bribery and treating;

(ii) the proposed multipurpose ID cards and

(iii) the proposal to send local officials to selected cities to register voters.

However, since the controversial provisions in the draft Bill were withdrawn by the government following public expression of dissatisfaction, the application was deemed moot. No court injunction was ever issued.

Many of the issues raised above have now been clarified by the release of the ToR on the appointment of Sir Byron dated 25 August 2020, which confirms our earlier suspicions.

The document makes no mention of “Sole Commissioner”. It makes reference to payment by the state to Sir Byron of EC $450,000.00 for services rendered during a 4- month period between September 1 to December 31, 2020, at an  average cost of EC $113,000.00 per month   in addition to the cost of air ticket, accommodation and ground transportation. It begs the question why are Dominicans willing to pay such a high  price for electoral reform in Dominica?

Essentially, the gentleman is engaged to:

i. review the electoral process;

ii. review various election reports;

iii. review existing legislation and propose amendments;

iv. conduct widespread consultation with stakeholders;

v. advise on updating and maintaining electoral register; and

vi. make recommendations on various aspects of our election process.

In conclusion, it seems obvious at this juncture that Dominicans are serious. Electoral reform is a must. Whatever the political games being played by the DLP administration, the product of this exercise must be in accordance with the rule of law and people driven rather than government driven. Hence, the call of Alex Bruno, a political strategist,  for a strong, collective, social, political and legal force that brings together all interested parties behind a unified statement with a strategic narrative against the leadership of the executive and their incumbent interests in electoral reform.

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