Referendum Act: 10% is enough! It's a matter of 'time'
In recent weeks, the media airwaves in Belize have been a buzz as it pertains to the petition launched by the National Evangelical Association of Belize (NEAB) and other church organizations to trigger a referendum on the legalization of marijuana. Last week, it was reported that NEAB did achieve its 10% mark, and reports are that the signatures should be submitted to the Governor-General shortly.
This week, the media questioned Prime Minister Hon. John Briceño on his sentiments regarding the petition on a Bill that his Cabinet clearly supports and that has already passed before the National Assembly. In responding to the media, the prime minister said:
"Let me hurry [and] say because I did not listen to what Mr. Kareem said. I was out. But, let me put it this way. It is unfortunate that the churches decided that they want a referendum because they had adequate and enough time to tell us that this is what they wanted. We had extensive consultations with everyone, including the churches, in-door, public, and private. And now, for them now to say that they want a referendum. Well then, we have to respect their views. So, with that, thank you. I have to go and campaign."
In addition to what appears to be a quip at the end—"I have to go and campaign"—the Prime MInister's response squares more comfortably with the language of Belize's Referendum Act. Also aligning with the Act are these words: "And now, for them now to say that they want a referendum. Well then, we have to respect their views."
The prime minister's words are naturally weighed against those of the Minister of New Growth Industries Hon. Kareem Musa who had suggested that "it is up to Cabinet to decide" as to what would happen to the referendum petition.
The fact is that the Referendum Act clearly stipulates what should follow:
"Subject to the provisions of this Act, a referendum shall be held in any of the following circumstances ... where a petition is presented to the GovernorGeneral signed by at least ten percent of the registered electors in Belize whose names appear in the approved voters’ list existing at the time of presentation of the petition."
The law would go on to prescribe roles for the Chief Elections Officer in terms of verifying the signatures, which if verified, gives the Governor-General 30 days within which she is to issue a Writ of Referendum. The law states:
"The Governor-General shall, within thirty days ... of the receipt of the certificate from the Chief Elections Officer pursuant to section 2(4), verifying that the petition has been duly signed by the requisite number of electors as specified in section 2(3) ...issue a Writ of Referendum in a form similar to the Writ of Elections in the Schedule V to the Representation of the People Act."
As a result, should the signatures acquired by NEAB pass the verification stage, a referendum there will be. According to the Elections and Boundaries Department, the country has 186,897 registered voters. The petitioners, therefore, only need approximately 18,700 verified signatures to trigger the popular vote.
Once triggered, the operative next step will be deciding on the referendum question. In New Zealand, for instance, citizens not too long ago held a referendum on the following question: "Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?"
A Note on Timelines
Speaking of New Zealand, a fellow commonwealth country, there is value in likewise highlighting the timeline associated with the present NEAB-launched petition.
The petition was effectively launched on April 5th, and within six days the organizers had gathered 13,000 signatures, a figure that represented 70% of the threshold. Only days later, that had climbed to 79%. Within the month of April, NEAB is now reporting that it has reached the threshold.
Belize's Referendum Act is silent on the window of time within which the signatures must be gathered, unlike its New Zealand counterpart. In the latter's Citizens Initiated Referenda Act (1993), the law states:
"(3) The promoter shall deliver the indicative referendum petition to the Clerk of
the House of Representatives within 12 months after the date of the publication
in the Gazette of the notice required by section 13(1)(b)."
The threshold target is similar in both countries (10%). Consequently, if the promoters in Belize's petition have been able to gather the requisite number of signatures within one month of a process that would have otherwise taken 12 months in a country that recently held a referendum on a similar topic, it does speak to the level of interest within the population.
Returning, then, to the prime minister's interview, while it is not entirely clear what Briceno's quip was aimed at; however, if it was in reference to the referendum, then he is right. The various camps will soon need to put their campaign strategies into motion.