PM opens Constitutional Amendment Debate
Prime Minister Perry Christie, Wednesday morning, put forth the four Bills to Amend the Constitution as he opened the debate in the House of Assembly on the vital changes, particularly the questions relating to gender equality and citizenship.
Following is his presentation in its entirety.
“ Mr. Speaker : It gives me great pleasure to foreshadow the introduction and first reading later this morning of four separate bills to amend the Constitution of The Bahamas. These four bills, representing the first round of constitutional reform, are bound together by a common thread: the need to institute full equality between men and women in matters of citizenship and, more broadly, to eliminate discrimination in The Bahamas based on sex.
It will be recalled that the Constitutional Commission, in its Report last year, made specific recommendations concerning this matter. The Commission has now presented to Cabinet – and Cabinet has approved – the four bills that will be introduced in this honourable House this morning.
The Government wishes to record its gratitude to the Constitutional Commission, under the chairmanship of Sean McWeeney QC, for its work in overseeing the preparation of the bills, with the technical support of the Attorney General’s Office and the Law Reform Commission, and for the ongoing role the Commission has agreed to play in relation to constitutional reform, particularly in relation to public education.
In this latter regard, I have been informed by Chairman McWeeney that Retired Supreme Court Justice Ruby Nottage, supported by other members of the Constitutional Commission, has agreed to spearhead the public education campaign that will begin very shortly.
The Government also wishes to place on record its appreciation of the entirely constructive and commendably statesmanlike contribution the Opposition has made to the preparation and finalization of the bills that will be introduced today. In this regard, I would especially like to commend the Leader of the Opposition and Member for Killarney, Dr. Minnis, and Senator the Hon. Carl Bethel. This kind of bi-partisanship on matters of high constitutional principle augurs well for the ongoing maturation of our democracy.
It is the Government’s intention, subject to further consultations with the Opposition, to have the four constitutional bills debated and passed in both Houses of Parliament in the shortest possible time so as to maximize the time available for discussion and dialogue throughout the country in advance of a national constitutional referendum to be held on the 6th November, 2014.
Mr. Speaker: Members are aware, of course, that under the Constitution the four bills in question must in each instance be approved by at least three-quarters (3/4ths) of the members of the House of Assembly. The bills must then go to the Senate where they must also be approved by three-quarters (3/4ths) of the members of that legislative body. Following passage in the Senate, the bills must be approved by a simple majority of voters in a national referendum. Only after going through that entire process can the Constitution be altered.
Although I shall have more to say on the bills on a later occasion, I should like to give just a brief snapshot of what each bill essentially says so that the public can be guided accordingly.
Bill # 1 : The Bahamas Constitution (Amendment) Bill, 2014
This bill seeks to achieve gender equality in a very important respect: it seeks to give a child born outside The Bahamas to a Bahamian-born mother and non-Bahamian father the same automatic right to Bahamian citizenship that the Constitution already gives to a child born outside The Bahamas to a Bahamian-born father and a non-Bahamian mother. The bill is therefore simply equalizing the sexes and, in so doing, eliminating an area of discrimination against women that has persisted for the past 41 years.
It is important to emphasize, however, that in keeping with the present Constitution, the right to automatically pass Bahamian citizenship to one’s child will continue to operate only where the Bahamian parent is himself, or herself, a native-born Bahamian. This will not change under this amendment.
It should also be noted that this change in the Constitution, if approved, will not operate retroactively.
However, I wish to announce that my government will, as a matter of administrative policy, grant Bahamian citizenship to all applicants born abroad after July 9, 1973 (and before the law changes) to a Bahamian-born mother and non-Bahamian father, subject, of course, to the exceptions, and in accordance with the procedures, already prescribed by law.
Bill #2 : The Bahamas Constitution (Amendment) (No.2) Bill, 2014
Bill # 2 also seeks to achieve gender equality in another respect under the Constitution: it seeks to enable a Bahamian woman who marries a foreign man to secure for him the same access to Bahamian citizenship that a Bahamian man has always enjoyed under the Constitution in relation to his foreign spouse. In short, the bill seeks to achieve gender equality in this regard.
I hasten to add, however, that this bill contains provisions that are designed to ensure that foreign persons, be they male or female, who enter into bogus marriages with Bahamian citizens, will not be assisted by this constitutional change.
More specifically, a foreign spouse who wishes to acquire Bahamian citizenship based on his or her marriage to a Bahamian citizen will not be able to avail himself or herself of the constitutional change if he or she is no longer married to a Bahamian; of if he or she is married but has no intention of living with the Bahamian spouse; or if it can be shown that the foreign spouse only married the Bahamian in the first place in order to access Bahamian citizenship. In all these cases, Bahamian citizenship applications will be denied. Indeed this is consistent with existing policy and will therefore not come as any great surprise.
I should also mention that in common with the other three bills, this bill will not apply retroactively.
Bill #3 : The Bahamas Constitution (Amendment) (No.3) Bill, 2014
Bill # 3 is of particular interest because it seeks to remediate the one area of the Constitution that discriminates against men. At present, an unwed Bahamian father cannot pass his citizenship to a child born to a foreign woman. This bill seeks to change that. It will give an unwed Bahamian father the same right to pass citizenship to his child that a Bahamian woman has always had under the Constitution in relation to a child born to her out of wedlock.
This bill, however, will require proof of paternity by one or other of the methods prescribed by law.
I should also mention that a bill for a short consequential amendment to the Status of Children Act has also been prepared and will be tabled either later today or at the next meeting of the House. However, this bill will not be brought into force unless or until Bill # 3 completes its passage through both Houses followed by approval in the referendum.
Bill #4 : The Bahamas Constitution (Amendment) (No.4) Bill, 2014
Finally, Bill #4 seeks to end discrimination based on sex. This involves the insertion of the word “sex” in Article 26 of the Constitution so as to make it unconstitutional to discriminate based on a whether someone is male or female.
I should caution, however, that this bill makes it clear that the existing exceptions will continue to apply. In particular, this bill will not make same-sex marriages lawful. Such unions are already treated as void under the Matrimonial Causes Act and the genesis of this particular legal position pre-dates the Independence Constitution. This will not change under the proposed amendments to Article 26.
Before closing, I wish to advise that preliminary preparations are already underway for the “Citizenship Commission” recommended by the Constitutional Commission in its Report. I expect to be able to announce the members of this commission in the near future. The purpose of this new commission will be to study and definitively address the status of the numerous persons who were born in The Bahamas, albeit to non-Bahamian parents, and who have never known any home other than The Bahamas. As the Constitutional Commission has so sagely warned, we ignore this problem at our peril.
The focus for today, however, rightfully rests on the four bills that will be tabled very shortly. The changes to the Constitution foreshadowed by these bills will not only help remediate the problem of structural gender inequality and discrimination in our country but will also assist in bringing greater inclusiveness and cohesion to family structures while at the same time ensuring that The Bahamas lives up to its international obligations in these matters.