By Staff Writer
It started out as the Defence Bill 2020 and emerged after two days of intense debate and cross-party consultations as the Law To Provide For The Establishment Of A Regiment For The Islands For Incidental And For Connected Purposes.
The rather cumbersome title reflects the compromise and concessions reached to address a range of concerns voiced mainly by opposition and independent MLAs about the legislation and the remit of the new Cayman Islands Regiment.
Hon. Premier Alden McLaughlin called the outcome “a significant result.”
The discussion which had been swirling in the community was manifested on the floor of the Legislative Assembly with the government and opposition benches trading salvos about the newest addition to the jurisdiction’s uniformed emergency services.
The main objections focused on the authority of the Governor over the regiment and the unit's defence mandate beyond its humanitarian ethos.
Hon. Premier Alden McLaughlin tabled the bill seeking to give legislative authority to the regiment.
“The Bill provides for the governance and management of the newly established Regiment, which is a reserve force whose duties include the defence of these Islands, providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, assisting the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service and the Cayman Islands Coast Guard when called upon, as well as participating during ceremonial occasions," he stated.
Much of the debate has revolved around whether the regiment should have more of a humanitarian remit than a military defence capability.
Its involvement in defence and security missions outside Cayman, the role of the Governor - who is ultimately responsible for defence under the constitution, and recruitment eligibility have been points of concern.
Premier McLaughlin had to push back against suggestions that the regiment was part of the British army, that it was being rushed in operation and that the legislation was flawed.
The regiment already has 51 enlisted and more are being recruited. Several in the officer class have also undergone training at the UK’s world-renowned Sandhurst military training academy.
The regiment is “one more important part of our national resiliency infrastructure”, said Premier McLaughlin who has been at the forefront of efforts to have it established dating back to 2005, the year after the devastation caused by Hurricane Ivan when Cayman was assisted by the Bermuda regiment.
"When we won the Government for the first time in 2005, the Progressives; that was one of the things we pursued with the then-Governor but at that time the UK Government was not at all inclined to support the establishment of such a regiment and the idea died on the vine."
Mr McLaughlin said he was "delighted" when current the Governor HE Martyn Roper took up the mantle.
"It seems, the UK has come to understand the huge advantage of having an established service, established force in the various territories comprised of people who live there and who have intimate knowledge of the terrain and issues that affect the particular territory and they seized on the opportunity of doing so first in Cayman, he said."
“Members of the Regiment will receive or are receiving in some cases the necessary ongoing training so as to be ready to assist during any crisis; whether that crisis is a major fire, an earthquake, a hurricane, a pandemic, or perhaps assisting the RCIPS or the Coast Guard as necessary.”
But there are objections to the wider remit especially clauses relating to military service, although non-combatant, both in and outside the Cayman Islands, at the discretion of the Governor.
Hon. independent MLA for Northside Ezzard Miller said while he supports the establishment of the regiment as previously envisioned, what was presented to the LA deviated from the original outline and therefore he could not back the legislation.
“My concerns lie in the fact that much has been added to the role of the regiment that I could not support.
“What I do not support is the assignment of the role of defence of these islands…and such other duties as the Governor may determine.”
Mr Miller said there were other misgivings he had with the then Defence Bill and hoped that the relevant amendments would be made to earn his support.
That trend of concern was the pattern for other interventions by opposition and MLAs.
Hon. MLA for West Bay North, Bernie Bush also cited the authority of the Governor over the regiment, especially his discretionary scope.
Mr Bush also questioned the pace at which he felt the legislation was being rushed through compared to what he felt were other pressing issues.
Mr Bush said the bill as presented had a lot of mistakes and questioned the government’s priorities. “People are losing their homes, and we don’t rush to do anything to help him, but we are rushing with this.”
He also declined to support the bill as presented.
Hon. Leader of the Official Opposition, Arden McLean, was keen on the original concept of the regiment but also voiced concerns with what he said was the inclusion of new elements.
“I want to see these young people proudly doing the drills along the streets and proud to be in the Uniformed Services.”
“Watch my choice of words,” he pointed out, emphasising “the Uniformed Services.”
“You go to America and every time you see somebody in a military uniform everybody gathers around them and say thank you for your service. I want to be able to do that here, too,” he said hoping that the unit expands its ranks to 150 from its present 51.
Mr McLean also felt that instead of the Governor, the unit should be under “a minister with the delegated responsibility for Uniformed Services in this country.”
He also wondered why the Cadet Corps wasn’t prioritised over a new regiment.
As the debate progressed the Hon. Independent MLA for George Town Central, Kenneth Bryan, took exception to several aspects of the legislation and the functions of the regiment but expressed support for the original concept of the unit.
“I think that majority of the concerns that we have in respect to this bill can be summed up in one word and that word is trust,” he said, “because I don't think anybody in this honourable house is disputing whether we want a regiment or not.”
“When we started to hear many people being concerned, it tells me that the majority of the people are not opposed to a regiment but none of us knew what the formulation of the regiment would look like,” the George Town Central MLA observed.
Hon. Deputy Opposition Leader and MLA for Newlands, Alva Suckoo also challenged the authority of the Governor over the regiment, particularly concerning issues of discipline as they might arise.
“What I am seeing here is a colonial law copied and pasted from legislation that goes back to our colonial past. It doesn’t pay respect to the elected arm of government." he declared.
He went on to itemise several objections regarding the Governor's oversight.
“I’m particularly concerned with the ability of the Governor to direct prosecutions against members of the public. I am particularly concerned with the lack of regards for the Office of the Premier, and I’m concerned about the ability of the Governor to bypass our immigration regime or any vetting process for admitting members into this regiment,” he lamented.
Hon. MLA for Bodden Town West, Chris Saunders also proposed a list of amendments to the bill which is based on the Bermuda model.
“Rather than follow Bermuda, let us do what we do best and lead,” he suggested.
“There’s no reason for us to go back and do something that Bermuda has done for more than 400 years when if you look at the history and development of Cayman it is completely different to that of Bermuda,” Mr Saunders reasoned.
He also questioned the role of the Governor.
“I encourage the members of this House to see if we can find a way to rename this bill,” he also suggested, calling for more oversight to be placed with the Office of the Premier instead of the Governor.
“This kind of power vested in any one individual is immoral, it’s wrong and it’s undemocratic,” the Bodden Town West MLA stated.
Independence was central to the remarks of Hon. MLA for Savannah, Anthony Eden.
Referring to the powers assigned to the Governor in the legislation over the regiment, he drew similarities with the Governor’s intervention in the controversial Domestic Partnership Bill, which resulted in its enactment as the Civil Partnership Law despite being voted down in the Legislative Assembly.
“In light of how the civil partnership legislation was handled and managed by the governor, it terrifies me to give him more power,” Mr Eden stated arguing that independence from Britain was the best option for the Cayman Islands.
ON THE DEFENSIVE
Hon. MLA for Prospect, Austin Harris, Councillor in the Office of the Premier, pushed back on what he called misrepresentations of the (then) Defence Bill and the role of the regiment.
He cast the unit in more of a non-combatant, peace-keeping role.
Citing sections which refer to performing military service including training and non-combatant services both outside and inside the islands, Mr Harris said in his view these are intended to “instill discipline as a primary objective not necessarily war-fighting ability as some would have us believe.”
“It may surprise you to know that there exists within the United Kingdom military complex 210 regiments cores and units,” he explained.
“However, not all are fighting or aggressor type forces although they carry the same name and similar training strategies.”
The Prospect MLA said these skills enabled them to play key roles in humanitarian services including disaster relief.
Also speaking in support of the legislation and regiment was Hon. Minister for Health Dwayne Seymour who also acknowledged that valid points had been raised which warranted consideration.
“I must admit in listening intently that there has been some good debate and contributions hence the reason for the Honourable Premier saying ‘we have heard and appreciate some of the members' contributions and we have undertaken to take them on board and make amendments’.”
Mr Seymour went on to address the issue of independence which also surfaced in the debate.
“If the people of this country ever decide that we should go independent it will be important that we have a structure that is not far from ready to take a new role to defend this country.”
NO HIDDEN AGENDA
The Hon. Deputy Governor, Franz Manderson felt that several “very valid points” had been made.
Giving the background to the origins of the regiment, he assured that there was no hidden agenda.
“I've had numerous discussions with his Excellency about this regiment. He talked to me from day one when he said he was going to bring it up with the Premier and I told him then that I thought it was a great idea,” the Deputy Governor informed the LA meeting.
“But,” he insisted, “there is no hidden agenda here. The Governor wants a regiment for the Cayman Islands so that it will carry out the functions of keeping us safe. Helping us.”
“Mr Speaker. I'm not gonna be part of any conspiracy. The government is not going to be part of any conspiracy. We are here to serve the people of the Cayman Islands and that's exactly what we're doing. All of us has the Cayman Islands best interests at heart,” Mr Manderson stressed.
The Defence Bill was subsequently subjected to a series of amendments before it was passed as 'The Law To Provide For The Establishment Of A Regiment For The Islands For Incidental And For Connected Purposes'.
Commenting on the concessions made especially regarding the objections to the powers of the Governor, Premier Alden McLaughlin reported to the LA, “We have made a number of qualifications to the exercise of the Governor’s discretion…”
In addressing the compromise which characterised the outcome of the debate, he observed:
”I think what we have seen occurring over the past two days with respect to this bill is probably one of the most beautiful parts of that thing called democracy," he remarked.
The Premier said, "It has allowed every member of this House to scrutinise and criticise every aspect of this bill not just for the sake of doing so, but they have actually achieved a significant result.”