Sunday, July 24, 2011

Majority Ownership of Public Utilities...and of Persons

With the tabling of the Ninth Amendment Bill, our Prime Minister has produced his most egregious piece of legislation to date. While this amendment is ostensibly to bring ownership of our public utilities under Government's protective arm for good and all, it is for one thing deliberately vague in its definition of public utilities. So while we certainly are discussing BTL, BEL and BWS, we may very easily also be discussing Smart, or Belcogen, or Consolidated Water (the privately owned water company on Ambergris Caye), or BNE, or any number of other potential targets. To make it happen just pass legislation declaring the target entity to be a public utility, and then...why, thank you, Mr. Investor, a majority share of your company is just what the doctor ordered. A Constitutional amendment excusing the country from paying its displaced investors for their lost assets is also no longer out of reach. These possibilities will of course only excite the passions of a small number of people, being those companies lucrative enough to become likely targets, and maybe the Chamber of Commerce, which seems of late to have emerged as the champion of investor causes. The media, and especially the all-powerful, also-hungry Krem, will have no difficuly getting behind this piece of legislation with gusto. Notable exceptions will be Channel 5, owned by Mr. Ashcroft, which has already sounded a warning in its Friday newscast, and Love FM, which seems almost deliberately oblivious of what could be (and is) happening. And it is almost certain that the Bar Association, though Mr. Barrow may accuse it of being almost totally PUP, will bow to the will of its (minority?) UDP members and either remain silent or speak in a hoarse whisper.

What most people will miss, because the media will choose not to see it, is that the legislation, in its heavy-handed way of nailing the door shut against marauding foreign investors, has left a gaping hole (and this is no doubt deliberate) that allows this administration to become as powerful as any dictatorship that ever swallowed a democratic country whole. In stating that "...a law passed by the National Assembly to alter any of the provisions of this Constitution...shall not be open to challenge in any court of law on any ground whatsoever," the legislation removes the courts from the equation. What this means is, quite simply, that any amendment can be introduced and passed by the current supermajority in the House, and it cannot be challenged in the courts. So the passing of such amendments will become pro-forma, and we'll lose whatever freedoms we thought we had.

Yes, the first thing that should then come to your mind is the much-dreaded Preventative Detention legislation, which it is important to note that Mr. Barrow has only put 'in the cooler' and not withdrawn on this occasion. Once the Ninth Amendment is passed, the Eighth can go through without court challenge and then suspension of habeas corpus is complete. At that point, an admistration as vicious and paranoid as this one has shown itself to be will have a nuclear weapon of sorts at its disposal for use against its enemies on a whim. It is no longer an exaggeration then to say that the more energetic citizens' organizations such as Belizeans for Justice, COLA, the lately emerged BelizeCan, or Audrey Matura of Oceana will then either be forced to go silent or otherwise begin to operate under constant threat as the Chinese dissidents do.

Preventative Detention aside, Amendment 9 gives the kind of unlimited power that our Constitution's authors sought to prevent. Yes, with the passage of this amendment, Mr. Barrow also can, and most likely will, abolish, or at least shorten, the 90-day discussion period for such amendments, thereby eliminating any chance opponents would have had to gain traction against whatever measure he proposes. He can also --and for a man who has expended an unprecedented amount of time and effort amending the Constitution for control purposes, this is also not outside the realm of possibility-- even go as far as abolishing elections. Not that he needs to, since for all intents and purposes we have no Opposition, but this may even become his stated reason for doing so.

While the conjectures above perhaps could be consigned to the pages of a bestselling conspiracy novel, the fact is that Amendment 9 is a powerful weapon designed to obliterate the protections, rights and privileges that our Constitution grants us all as Belizean citizens. It is also a fact that laws made for one man, Mr. Ashcroft, have been used to damage others since they have been enacted, and on that basis alone there is an unavoidable requirement for broader interpretation of possible applications. One more conjecture to close with: our Prime Minister has openly and often committed to the notion of big government, and our big government is a bloated, hungry monster with a growing appetite voraciously devouring tax revenue. That tax revenue isn't coming in at the rate it should and it may be that the idea is to feed the monster with revenue from monopoly utilities. Before you laugh it off, look up your phone bills to see how much rates have dropped since the 2009 acquisition. Exactly. And will BEL rates drop? That remains to be seen, but you should not count on it. For now, and regarding Amendment 9, the question is, what will YOU do about it?

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