Plus ça change...
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: the more things change, the more they remain the same.
The Tobago House of Assembly (THA) website informs us that Chief Secretary Orville London has written the Prime Minister on what it calls “internal self-governance for Tobago.” (I suppose what is meant is “internal self-government” — there is quite a difference between “government” and “governance””.)
London is proposing the establishment of a Reconciliation Commission to draft legislation on the issue. The Commission would comprise an equal number of representatives of the Central Government and the THA and a mutually acceptable chairperson. It would “submit a report detailing its consensual position to both the Government and the Assembly for action by their principals.” This report “could become the catalyst for further discussion” by the Cabinet, the THA and the public “before debate and final resolution” by the Parliament. What might happen if there is no consensus to begin with is not mentioned.
“The people of Tobago now need adequate assurance that their concerns and positions will be addressed,” the release adds. Since the consensus report, if it ever gets written, is to be placed before the public, among others, I assume that the people of Trinidad will also have a say. What if their “concerns and positions” are at odds with those of Tobago? But that isn’t mentioned either.
One of these days I shall write at length about my own experiences in this matter of Tobago internal self-government, on both sides of the water. Among other things, I shall talk about the genuine efforts made, yes, but also about the partisan and personal politicking and preening, the self-serving attitudes, the lies and quarter-truths and evasions, the detachment from reality, the threats both clamorous and veiled, the negotiating incompetence, and so on, that have marked the process. They no longer so much startle me as leave me in dismay, and they have considerably helped to leave Tobago without the internal self-government it deserves. But I shan’t write yet.
For now, what I will say is that the Chief Secretary’s “new” proposal reminds me irresistibly of what happened in 1992. In January that year the recently-installed Prime Minister, Patrick Manning, told the THA that he was offering the people of Tobago “constitutional guarantees in respect of the relationship between Trinidad and Tobago.” I was one of those who believed him. I remember Deborah Moore-Miggins expressing caution. She was wiser than I.
In July 1992 the THA, chaired by the late Lennox Denoon, appointed a Technical Team “to review the constitutional status of Tobago within the Unitary State of Trinidad and Tobago” and make appropriate recommendations. The Team, of which I was member, was led by Karl Hudson-Phillips and was also mandated to hold discussions with a similar Technical Team appointed by the government and led by the late Sir Ellis Clarke.
The two Teams met together five times and reached agreement on recommendations to be made to their principals. In his letter of September 23, 1992 to Denoon conveying these recommendations, Hudson-Phillips pointed inter alia to the proposal that the Assembly have, in relation to Tobago, “the power to pass such laws as may be prescribed by Parliament.” I stress: this was a position agreed to by both Teams.
I shan’t now go into what transpired thereafter; that will have to wait. I shall however say that I was most surprised to read the following comment by Keith Rowley last January 16, more than twenty years later, in the short-lived House of Representatives debate on the Internal Self-Government Bill introduced by the government.
He said: “(The government) proposal holds out to Tobagonians the possibility of Tobago passing its own laws. If you go on the street in Tobago and ask anybody, have you considered what this means, do you understand, do you know what is being passed on your behalf? For example, are we going to get a new tax regime in Tobago? The people on the streets are not there. They are not there on that discussion—a simple everyday matter like taxes. If you will have power to pass laws, then taxation is an aspect for legislation. Are we to expect that the day after this thing is passed that the Tobago House of Assembly can decide, well look, you know what, taxation in Tobago is too low, so we are need to collect more taxes here and we want more money to spend. Are Tobagonians on board with that? It might be a good thing. I am not saying yea or nay. I am simply asking do they know. Have the discussions being sufficiently ventilated with them that they know what they are doing?”
Twenty years ago is one thing, but it was London, Rowley’s own Deputy Political Leader and Head of the THA, who in late 2011 submitted to the government a draft constitutional amendment which purports to confer on the THA “power to make laws...for the peace, order and good governance of Tobago...” (My emphasis.) And it is London who has repeatedly told us that his submission has the support of the people of Tobago. So what exactly is his party’s position on this central factor in Tobago internal self-government?
Further, Rowley is quoted in the Express of last January 7 as pouring scorn on the suggestion of a federation between Tobago and Trinidad. “Have you ever heard more madness?” he is reported as saying. But the federal recommendation came from the report of a 2012 Commission set up by the London Executive Council. Again I ask: what exactly is the PNM’s position? May I add that I am one of those who favour a federal arrangement? On Rowley’s reasoning, therefore, I too may have slipped into insanity. Who knows, he may be right. I must go and see John Neehall.
The merry-go-round continues. The horses and the riders change; the ride remains the same.