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Playing politics with Tobago

By Raffique Shah

THE constitutional relationship between the islands of Trinidad and Tobago is too important an issue for structural changes in the status quo to be implemented in the heat of an election campaign. Unless the election is a referendum on, say, the issue of self-governance for Tobago, with Tobagonians knowing exactly what they are voting for or against, such matter, which has far-reaching implications for all citizens of the twin-island republic, is best dealt with in a more sober atmosphere.

I didn't think that I, or anyone else, needed to spell out what I have done here to experienced politicians who ought to know where politicking stops and serious matters like constitutional reform and structural changes begin. That government could table legislation that seeks to alter the existing arrangements between the two islands on the eve of an election in Tobago is insulting to parliamentarians and contemptuous of Tobagonians and Trinidadians.

No one—not Trinidadians, not Tobagonians—can be against a comprehensive revision of the Tobago House of Assembly Act of 1980, which was amended, piecemeal, in 1996 and 2006. The original act was not very fair to Tobagonians who, through their MPs (Ray Robinson and Winston Murray), demanded greater autonomy than what the Dr Eric Williams-led PNM government conceded. I know first-hand about the original act. I was an MP in 1977 when Robinson tabled a motion calling for greater autonomy, which my colleagues and I supported. I also spoke out in favour of devolution of power when the bill was debated in 1980.

In the current scenario, the question that must be asked is this: how many citizens know details of the Amendment Bill that will be laid in Parliament on Monday? Even more damning, how many parliamentarians are familiar with its provisions? Few, if any, I think. Interested parties know only of a Draft Bill that was appended to a lengthy Green Paper that was published in May 2012.

The paper itself drew references to about six previous committees that examined the "Tobago question" for close to a decade. Almost all the reports from these exercises, among them one commissioned by the outgoing THA, are said to have recommended some form of self-government. In its May 2010 manifesto, with one key partner (TOP) coming from Tobago, the People's Partnership committed itself to actively addressing self-governance for the island.

As such, Government has the right, even a responsibility, to pursue the "Tobago question" through a legislative agenda, especially since the PNM in office was tardy and indecisive in this regard. The PNM-controlled THA did draft two bills on the issue and forward them to Government in 2011. The central Government rejected them without making their contents public, which was itself a contradiction—seeking more power for the THA on the one hand, but denying it an input on change on the other.

Government instead appointed a three-member committee chaired by Hamid Ghany to examine the Green Paper. The Ghany committee was mandated to meet with Tobagonians (not Trinidadians, eh—we have no say in this matter) and other unnamed stakeholders and consider their views on internal self-government. Out of this exercise, Government was supposed to produce a White Paper for public discussion, following which a bill would be brought before Parliament, debated and take its course, given that its passage requires a special majority.

Nothing more was heard of it until a few weeks ago when the Tobago election bell rang. As has become a disturbing norm, the Prime Minister used a political platform, not the Parliament, to reveal a few details of a bill that parliamentarians and the public are yet to see.

Now, while I do not begrudge Tobagonians full internal self-government, such fundamental constitutional change demands the widest possible consultations among people of both islands that constitute sovereign Trinidad and Tobago. My understanding of self-government is that the country (in this case island) that enjoys this status is empowered to control ALL aspects of governance except defence and foreign affairs. Correct me if I am wrong. Assuming such a bill becomes law within weeks, would it mean that Scarborough would have powers usually ascribed to ministries such as Finance, Attorney General, Public Utilities, Energy, Trade, and so on? Again, I'm asking questions because I do not know the answers. We are getting snippets from the Prime Minister amidst the din of campaigning, mainly by way of promises of more power and much largesse, as she seduces the sister-isle electorate to have them vote for Ashworth Jack's TOP.

The PM trumpeted an increase in the statutory budget allocation, taking the upper limit for Tobago from 6.9 per cent to 8.0 per cent. She said to the crowd, "You know what that means? More money for you!" What the PM did not tell Tobagonians is that central government has always given the THA the bare minimum prescribed by law, never the maximum. And if those people believed she meant more money in their pockets, well....

The near-surreptitious manner in which the bill is being brought before Parliament signals that Government intends to use the forum for electioneering, which is wrong, even vulgar. PNM parliamentarians and independent senators, especially the latter (their support is critical to its passage), will find themselves in an awkward position. If they oppose parts of bill based on genuine concerns, they would be branded "anti-Tobago".

The Government knows that whatever happens in Parliament, the bill will not be law by Election Day. If London and the PNM retain control of the Assembly, the PP could allow the bill to lapse (or not proclaim it) to deny them self-government status. If Jack's TOP wins, then "ah we boy" could well become the first premier, or whatever, of Tobago. Did someone say politics has a morality of its own?

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