This Sir Dennis Byron one-man Commission on Electoral Reform is serious business
Quietly, very quietly, Dominica began a new phase in the apparently unending quest for electoral reform when Duncan Stowe, the new chairman of the Electoral Commission, announced two weeks ago that Sir Dennis Byron's one-man commission, like a small private plane with a single pilot, had taxied out of the runway. This brand new system was now in flight.
But we ask: what is the destination, where are we heading and when will we know when we get there? Where is this absolutely crucial flight taking the people of Dominica who, like lambs to the slaughterhouse, have jumped on board, but asked few questions, requested few details, made zero demands for transparency?
But we, the people, must understand that this Sir Byron commission heralds the future of Dominica's democracy; what he says and what he does or what he does not write, will determine the direction of our elections, and hence our government, for decades to come. Our future is literally in Sir Byron's hands.
So, why are we, every organisation, every institution, every voter for that matter, not demanding a seat at the table to discuss our future? In his press statement, Stowe said about 35 organisations had been asked to provide an input in the process. Who are these institutions and who responded and who did not respond; what did they say? Where's the transparency?
But the route of the flight of the Sir Byron Commission is clear since it has been defined by thousands of words from all opposition political parties, the Joint CARICOM- Commonwealth- OAS Special Mission to Dominica of August 6-9, 2019; the many unimplemented decisions of the Gerald Burton Electoral Commission; the Mia Mottley report; the Commonwealth Observer Mission; the Organisation of American States (OAS) Electoral Observer Mission of 2014; the Electoral Reform Effort Group, which comprises of Church, Business, Trade Unions and Civil Society leaders, among many others.
For instance, the main opposition United Workers Party (UWP) said many years ago, and reiterated during the 2019 election campaign, that it demands: a total re-registration of all eligible voters on the basis of which a new register of voters would be issued; voter identification cards - picture ID cards for all eligible voters on the new register of voters who will be obligated to use the cards as identification during elections; enforcement of the provisions in electoral laws against bribery, treating, personation, illegal voting and election offenses in general; voting by electors living overseas – lawful facilitation of registered, eligible voters living overseas to vote in general elections in Dominica; media access for the Opposition - fair access for the Opposition to the news and current affairs programmes of all State-owned, State-operated or State-controlled media; campaign finance reform - to ensure at the very least declarations of campaign contributions and election campaign spending by any political party of no more than EC$30 per registered voter per election.
On the other hand, the specifics of the demands of the ruling Dominica Labour Party (DLP), are unclear. In fact, judging from the public statements of leaders of the DLP, that party may have reluctantly entered the election reform process. It was not interested.
For example, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said a few years ago that the DLP Government that he leads "is confident that the electoral laws of Dominica and the election process as a whole has always produced elections which are free and fair and the results truly reflect the wish of the Dominican electorate".
This statement was reiterated by President of the Commonwealth of Dominica, Charles Angelo Savarin, who told the House of Assembly that "generally that system has served us in good stead over the years and all three of our major political parties have won and lost elections under the existing system."
Additionally, Anthony Astaphan, the DLP spokesman wrote on page 23 of his booklet "Commonwealth of Dominica: Electoral Reform, MYTH OR FACT?": "We have had elections since at least 1980 with the very same process and Register. Since 1980 and most definitely since 2000 there has been no credible allegations or claim of the Register having compromised an election or lead to corrupt practice."
In other words, the position of the DLP appears to be: if the system isn't broken, why fix it.
But no one was clearer than Joseph Isaac, the then Minister of Climate Resilience and Urban Renewal (the former UWP parliamentary representative for Roseau Central and the DLP candidate for Roseau North in the 2019 general election and now Speaker of the House of Assembly) who described electoral reform as a UWP "red herring" and that "Governments have changed for many years without electoral reform that they asking for… so they are just looking for something to talk about".
Throughout the debate on electoral reform the DLP has argued that "the electoral system is not perfect" and the Electoral Commission has approved a system for the introduction of ID Cards and cleaning of the voters list and Government has budgeted the necessary resources to get the job done. But that when Government had taken these changes before parliament for legislation, the opposition vehemently protested forcing the government to withdraw the Bills. This a rather disingenuous argument. Explain why would the UWP fight against the electoral changes that it has demanded for decades?
Sir Byron pending recommendations, which Mr. Skerrit said he'd promptly take to parliament to pass into law, are expected to be significant.
Hence, we should watch closely for Sir Byron's take on campaign finance legislation that, note well, the DLP has said very little about it in the past and the ruling party would want to maintain its absolutely humongous advantage in unexplained available cash for electioneering.
Additionally, there is the contentious practice of political parties paying the transportation costs of hundreds of Dominicans who travel from overseas to Dominica to vote.
To make the practice legal, in May 2017 Skerrit's government introduced in parliament an amendment to the electoral laws that specified that providing air transportation to electors or supporters in the Diaspora was not illegal. That Bill, in case of any doubt, sparked massive opposition protests.
So we anxiously await Sir Byron' recommendation on that issue as well as the considerable level of treating, (incidentally, a case is now before the Caribbean Court of Justice that Sir Byron once headed) that has characterized Dominica's ultra-expensive election campaigns.