Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit continues to express frustration on the delay of the long-awaited electoral reform report from Eminent Caribbean Jurist Sir Dennis Byron. Sir Byron was selected by Prime Minister Skerrit to serve as a sole commissioner to advance efforts towards electoral reform in Dominica.
“The report was promised to us on March 23, 2023, we are now in May and this is concerning to me, because we absolutely in the country need to set this issue of electoral modernization/reform aside and focus on more important matters of the state,” he said while addressing a press briefing this week,” he said.
He continued, “This is a commitment we gave and I have said to Sir Dennis and of course you know we had the challenges with Covid-19 and the slowdown of this.”
According to Prime Minister Skerrit, whatever the final report is, it should be submitted to the people of Dominica, “and let us take it from there.”
He explained that when he attended the symposium in Trinidad he raised with CARICOM heads and the Secretary-General that he will also want CARICOM to step in to play a part with a view to advancing some of the fundamental elements of the electoral modernization process in Dominica, “So it’s concerning for us.”
Skerrit revealed that the matter was discussed in Parliament on Tuesday.
“It’s a matter that we discuss every week seeking a follow-up and we are ready to move with the consultations and the finalization of the bills and the policy positions and go to Parliament and enact the new legislation,” he stated.
Furthermore, he said the draft has been prepared, Sir Dennis would have had a first draft, “there were some refinements I understand that are being done and our view is: submit whatever is available and let the people of Dominica proceed with what we believe to be the fundamental elements of our electoral modernization process.”
Skerrit made it clear that he doesn’t want anybody to ever think that his government is not serious about this matter.
“But it is of extreme concern to us,” he reiterated.
He continued, “The moment we receive the report and the draft bills it will go to the public immediately and have a very efficient consultative process and let us go to parliament.”
Meanwhile, following a question posed to Prime Minister Skerrit on having equally capable Dominicans do the job, who would have been able to submit the report in a faster time, in his response he agreed that Dominica has highly competent, qualified, and trained persons who could have carried out that exercise. However, he stated that “We all know the issues which permeated this issue of electoral reform and we felt that it would have been better to get somebody who is independent, who is an international jurist to come in and to assist with advising on the fundamental elements on the electoral modernization process.”
He pointed out that the work that Sir Dennis has done has been good work so far.
“All we are saying is submit whatever we have now and let us go with it,” Skerrit reiterated.
He believes that his government has selected the right person for the job.
“I think we have selected the right person for the job and I think we selected the appropriate person for the job and I believe some good work has been done in respect to the reform, but there is a certain anxiety on my part in terms of the delay in the delivery of the report and in ensuring that we can move ahead with this report,” he remarked. “So what appears to be a divisive issue can be set aside and Dominicans focus on more fundamental issues which are affecting their lives.”
The Prime Minister went on to state that part of the problem is that the drafting of the legislation was not part of the original terms of references, but the recommendations were made to engage an expert legal draft person to draft the legislation, and that was authorized, “and we paid in the excess of US$70,000 for the drafting of this legislation.”
He added, “These pieces of legislation had been drafted, so my view is, submit the drafts, let us start the process of reviewing as Dominicans and determine what are the three fundamental elements of the reform.”
In a letter dated November 6, 2022, Sir Byron – a former President of the Caribbean Court of Justice, former Chief Justice of the OECS Supreme Court, and Privy Councilor, who was appointed by the government to investigate and advise on the issue of electoral reform- revealed to the former leader of the United Workers Party (UWP), Lennox Linton that he will be presenting his long-awaited report in two phases.
“Phase I will deal with the Registration of Electors and Phase II with the Election Process. I am in the final stage of the Phase I report,” he said in the letter copied to Mr. Duncan Stowe, Chairman of the Electoral Commission.
In the said letter, Byron acknowledged that his engagement “carries the expectation of bridging the sharp divisions of opinion that have handicapped the completion of this reform exercise.”
Against this background, he declared that legislative support is required to give effect to the recommended reforms, noting that the existing legislation is “quite old, and it has been a flashpoint for political disagreement and community dissatisfaction.”
Sir Byron also highlights in the letter that consultation took longer than anticipated as it was characterized by robust discussion and even resulted in several modifications to drafts of the proposed legislative instruments. He went on to point out that the draft legislation which was presented to Linton has the consensus of the Commission.
As such the Caribbean jurist noted, “I will present Phase I report during the month of November 2022. Parliament tables the Register of Elector’s legislation in December 2022 with the plan to enact it in January 2023, so that the Register of Electors could be compiled in accordance with the recommendations during that calendar year.”
He noted further, “I will present Phase II of the Report, after a consultation process similar to that undertaken for Phase I in February/ March 2023. Parliament tables and enacts the Phase II legislation in March/ April 2023.”
Byron, who spoke to state-owned Radio DBS last year, revealed that the process has been taking longer than he had anticipated and would not be ready in 2021, as initially promised, and instead gave a new target date of January 2022. This present delay with the recommendation isn’t the first that the public has experienced since Skerrit broke the news of Sir Byron’s assignment at the swearing-in of his new cabinet in December 2019.
The process, which was originally due to commence in March 2020, finally got off the ground on February 1, 2021, with over 35 organisations, including political parties, recognized civic groups, and non-governmental organisations, invited to make written submissions by Thursday, February 11.
The Prime Minister had initially announced that Sir Dennis would visit Dominica in March 2020 on an “information-gathering exercise and once he comes into Dominica, he will be exposed to all the relevant stakeholders including the media.”
The onset of COVID-19, which led to the closure of borders, forced a change of plans, and the start of the process was rescheduled to September 1, 2020, with an end date in December of the same year. However, DNO was told that the eminent jurist refused to begin unless the Electoral Commission was properly constituted. The original plan called for a series of town hall meetings with the public, but with COVID-19 many of the consultations and citizens’ surveys on electoral reform were held virtually.