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Another case of indecent haste

By Winford James

In my column of November 22, 2012, headlined, "Another broken promise?'', I suggested that the People's Partnership government would not take legislation to Parliament to give Tobago greater autonomy in the conduct of its affairs before the THA elections scheduled for January 21, 2013. If it has not happened in two and a half years, I queried, how can it happen in 61 days? I also observed as follows:

"If the bills are not reconciled, what will be taken to parliament? Our best answer is the one in the Green Paper or some amended version of it. But when it will be taken is anybody's guess. Is the government bold enough to take it during the election campaign? I don't think so…

So they will take it to the parliament after the elections. But since it will be far easier to do so if the TOP wins control of the THA, how motivated will they be if the TOP loses?'

It appears that I was wrong. Kamla Persad-Bissessar, prime minister of the country and political leader of the People's Partnership, announced at the Tobago Organisation of the People's presentation of candidates on December 30, 2012 that a bill to that effect would be laid in Parliament on January 7, 2013 and debated from January 16, 2013—during the election campaign.

So, 14 days before the elections, our parliamentarians will be given a mere nine days to study the relevant proposals and consult with their various publics in preparation for the debate, and a merer five days to debate—that is, if a vote is expected before January 21.

Sounds rushed, indecently rushed, doesn't it?

We do not yet have sight of the new bill, but Persad-Bissessar highlighted some of its provisions in her political tour de force: law-making powers in respect of matters on the Tobago list (of responsibilities); establishment of the position of 'Secretary of Legal Affairs'; extension of Tobago's maritime boundaries from six to 11 nautical miles from some baseline; increase of Tobago's minimum share of annual budgets from 4.03 per cent to 6.09 per cent and of its maximum share from 6.09 per cent to 8 per cent; and creation of several positions of "Independent Assemblyman''.

Now these are big proposals—not nearly as big as those that I would like to see, but big. The power to make laws on a Tobago list of matters is unprecedented, and it presumes that there is a Trinidad list of matters as well as a national or federal or concurrent list of matters. Since this is the case, one may reasonably ask whether Trinidad was consulted on it before the decision to lay the bill on January 7, and whether Trinidadian parliamentarians, especially the Opposition and Independent ones, would not need consultation time with the Trinidadian publics before the debate day of January 16.

The proposal to extend the maritime boundaries to a radius of 11 miles raises a number of questions: What is the basis for the figure 11? Why not 12 or 100? Are these 11 miles part of the definition of Tobago? If not, what are they related to? Do they include oil and gas resources? To what extent?

The proposal to increase the budgetary share sounds exciting, but it is not half as exciting as one that seeks to have a share determined on Tobago's potential to generate income from its GDP on the basis of the estimated performance of its petroleum and non-petroleum sectors. The advantages of the latter proposal would make those of the first mere chicken feed! We must remember that, based on an evidence-based analysis, the Tobago economy was projected to generate a GDP of TT$6.3 billion in 2012 and a per capita GDP of US$17,614, and is projected to generate a GDP of TT$15.2 billion and a per capita GDP of US$35,696 by 2015. And if current trends hold, future prospects look very bright indeed.

This is therefore not a matter for prime ministerial fiat but for serious discussion between the THA and the national government in the full glare of public scrutiny.

The proposals to increase the number of assemblymen, as highlighted by PM Persad-Bissessar, are not clear but, as in the case of the other proposals, they raise questions. In light of the proposal to extend the maritime borders, why not have a new position of "Secretary of Energy'' as well, that is, if the proposal has any value at all as we are led to think? And the proposal for new assemblymen seems promising of better governance once the structure of the new tier of independent assemblymen will not be designed to ape the current structure of independent senators in the national space but to actually give the various Tobagonian interest groups the power to constrain certain actions of the Executive Council.

So, yes, these are big issues and they should have been properly discussed by both Tobago and Trinidad and not be foisted upon us by the government of the day through a clearly partisan committee ostensibly set up to reconcile two competing sets of legislative proposals—one from the government, the other from the opposition. Their passage should therefore not be rushed in this season of political opportunism.

In the context of an election campaign, this is indecent haste, not unlike the political indecency of the early proclamation of Section 34. It would have been far better if the proposed legislation had been discussed before the date of the elections was set so as to avoid loading public debate on it with unnecessary and retarding emotionalism. But naked, self-accommodating opportunism is the chosen way of this government.

And the worst part of it is that the new changes will come about, not necessarily through the will of the peoples of Tobago and Trinidad, but rather through prime ministerial fiat.

I am tired of this way of governing.

• Winford James is a uwi lecturer and a political analyst.

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