(CNS): Organisers of the campaign for a people-initiated referendum on the proposal for a cruise berthing facility in George Town have confirmed that the target of 5,282 voters is now well within sight, but the goal is to press on for an additional 1,500 names over and above the magic number to trigger the referendum. Campaigners are keen to ensure the petition has a buffer to cover changed names and addresses, registered voters who have been unknowingly removed, and any other anomalies that could lead Cabinet to reject the petition on a technicality. With a self-imposed target of almost 7,000 voters, campaigners are making sure there is no chance the PIR could be scuppered.
Speaking to CNS on Tuesday, Mario Rankin, one of those spearheading the campaign, said that almost 5,000 signatures have now been collected and counted from people who are registered voters. But he said there are still more than three dozen outstanding petition books that have not been included in that number which have yet to come into the central campaign, so they are possibly already at the referendum target.
Rankin said his concern now was that government might not play fair even when campaigners meet the requirements of the Constitution.
“We are concerned as government gets to pick the date and the wording of the question that it could attempt to manipulate the referendum. I just hope that they are fair about this process,” he said.
It is no secret that government opposes the idea of putting the project to the people and has invested an as yet undisclosed sum of public cash campaigning not just in support of the principle of the cruise port project but actually against the referendum petition itself.
Rankin explained that government also gets to control how and when the vote happens and it will not necessarily have the interests of voters at heart when it is forced to concede to the referendum and compose the question.
Rankin is keen to ensure that the government does not try to call a snap vote, thereby preventing those opposing the port to properly campaign, especially as it has already misled the wider public by calling the referendum a no vote for the port.
“A lot of those who support the port, including government, have said signing the people-initiated referendum petition a ‘no’ to the port project, but it is not,” he said. “But not signing the petition because of pressure from government is a ‘no’ to democracy.”
Although they are now very close to gathering the necessary number of signatures required to trigger the vote, the volunteers who have worked tirelessly on the campaign are still not giving up, and before the petition goes to the Elections Office for verification, they will be making sure it doesn’t fall short by a few names or other technicalities. The 1,500 additional names will create an insurance policy against any eventuality that could undermine the petition’s success.
When she appeared on Rooster’s call-in radio show Tuesday morning, Michelle Lockwood explained that, despite efforts to ensure that only registered voters signed the petition during the campaign, there could still be issues with some names.
She pointed to various unintended consequences of collecting so many signatures and the problems for civil servants. For example, while the deputy governor has given permission for most civil servants to sign, there may still be come-back on some names for some civil servants who have signed.
Even though many registered voters from the private sector have signed the petition, Rankin and Lockwood spoke about the challenges they have had persuading people who work for government to sign the petition. Rankin said many public sector workers believe that will be victimised if they sign it.
“It’s been very difficult to persuade civil servants to sign as many of them are too nervous,” Lockwood said.
The civil service makes up a significant part of the electorate and so if, as campaigners believe, a significant proportion of them are fearful of signing the petition, this amplifies the importance of a national vote on the matter so that they can vote on the cruise port proposal, for or against, with the protection of the secret ballot.
Rankin is still concerned that even when the campaign secures the petition numbers required under the Constitution, government could still do much to undermine the referendum process.
Once the campaign files its full and verified petition to the Elections Office and then on to Cabinet, they hope that the number of signatures on the petition will be enough for government to immediately pause the project until the referendum can be organised. Rankin believes the referendum should take place at the same time as the next general election in 2021.
“It will give people time to mount a real campaign on both sides and allow the public to see what actually happens to cruise numbers over that period,” he said. However, once government is compelled to hold a national vote, it is far less likely to allow a lengthy campaign and could call a quick vote, stifling debate and ensuring it uses the power of office to its advantage.
A people-initiated referendum requires 50% of the entire electorate plus one for it to pass rather than a simple majority. Because government sets the question, this also presents considerable opportunities to compose a question that would make it hard to stop the project.