Saturday, January 20, 2018

Does Balisier House back   THA Tobago self-rule plan?

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Mark Fraser

 The demise of Arthur NR Robinson seems likely to inspire renewed attention to long-simmering questions under the heading of Tobago self-government, or “greater autonomy”. Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Chief Secretary Orville London has referred sneeringly to central government figures’ “mouthing the compliments” about him, but doing nothing to advance a constitutional cause that marked the career of the late great Tobagonian. 

The Robinson contribution will long be remembered. But it obviously falls to today’s leadership in Tobago and in Trinidad to take up from where the former president had left off. 

It is only appropriate that THA Chief Secretary London should be in the forefront of any drive to raise consciousness afresh about the long-stagnated question of Tobago’s constitutional development. For the THA, however, electorally blessed with a PNM monopoly, championship of greater self-rule describes an unusual posture.

Until today, Tobago’s aspirations for self-rule have never been identified as a PNM enthusiasm. Historically, the party of Eric Williams and of Patrick Manning has counted as a force more disposed toward centralisation than toward such devolution of authority and responsibility as is now advocated for Tobago.

That the rhetoric coming out of the Tobago Council of the PNM has yet to find echoes in Balisier House, Port of Spain, may be a measure of the slowness of change accomplished since 2010 under political leader Dr Keith Rowley, himself Tobago-born. Earlier this month, however, Neil Wilson, chairman of the Tobago PNM Council, proclaimed a ten-point list of demands. Tobagonians, he said, “will not be appeased” until those demands are met.

The demands imply a radical revisit of the relationship between Tobago and Trinidad. They include a constitutionally recognised “equality of status”; an end to “Cabinet dominance”; THA authority to borrow; to tax; and to legislate for Tobago; and a redefinition of the territorial boundaries of each island.

Still stunned by its January 2013 electoral devastation, the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) element of the People’s Partnership appears to have withdrawn from any activist collaboration with the PNM THA toward reworking the constitutional and administrative ties that bind Tobago to Trinidad. Undeterred, Mr London is pressing forward with collaboration from former chief secretary Hochoy Charles, at best now an unknown political quantity, holding meetings since January, and building toward a big June conference at four Tobago venues, and the demand for a September parliamentary debate. 

Prosecuting such a remarkably ambitious mission, Mr London is so far lacking in vocal support from both Balisier House, and from the People’s Partnership administration in Port of Spain. 

The Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration cannot indefinitely continue to stand aloof from any resurgent self-government cause in Tobago. She should, at the very least, heed the THA leader’s call for top-level meetings on matters Tobagonians are likely to be holding more and more dear.