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Reset the Tobago, Trinidad relationship

By Ashton Brereton

The results of the elections for the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) have made it abundantly clear to those who wish to see that, if nothing else, the people of Tobago want greater—not less—control over their own affairs.

Ultimately, that objective—control over their affairs—is what the elections were really about. That is what the people of Tobago have wanted for over half a century now. In my view it is their inalienable right and Trinidadians should have no problems with that. It is a natural consequence of Tobago's history.

The historical underpinnings are there for all to read. Tobagonians have a far longer tradition of some form of elected internal self-government than we do in Trinidad. "The first elected Tobago Assembly held its inaugural session at George Town (now Studley Park) in July 1768." Yes, 1768! True it consisted only of white property owners but it was an elected Tobago Assembly. "Trinidad, by contrast, was granted an unelected Council of Government (later called a Legislative Council) in 1832!"—some 64 years later. Indeed, "Tobago's position in the 19th century has been described as 'superior' to that of Trinidad, because as one of the older British colonies, it enjoyed representative institutions. Tobago had its own bicameral legislature with its own governor and commander-in-chief." (Towards Internal Self-Government for Tobago A Green Paper—February 2012— Ministry of the Attorney General) (The Green Paper)

Fast forward to the 20th century. First, in 1958, we have the separation of Tobago's expenditure from that of Trinidad in the country's estimates, and the government accepted the advice of a development and welfare report that "Tobago is a distinct community with a history and life of its own and must not be regarded as a mere appendage of Trinidad.''

Then in 1977, ANR Robinson, then political leader of the Democratic Action Congress and MP for Tobago East, presented a motion in Parliament which called for internal self-government for Tobago. This motion was endorsed by the other Tobago MP, Dr Winston Murray, who emphasised that the motion called, not for secession, but for internal self-government. Next, in 1979 Lionel Seemungal tabled a bill entitled "An Act to make provision for, and in connection with, the Internal Self-Government of Tobago, and all matters incidental thereto." The Cabinet rejected all of the proposals contained in the Seemungal Bill but in 1980 the Government passed the Tobago House of Assembly Act, 1980— now superseded by The Constitution (Amendment) Act, 1996 and the Tobago House of Assembly Act, 1996— currently in effect. (The Green Paper)

Then in the period November 2006 to October 2007, spurred on by what Tobagonians saw as major deficiencies in a draft Constitution prepared by Sir Ellis Clarke, a team of persons co-ordinated by eminent Tobagonian Reginald Dumas and with the support of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), consulted groups and associations across Tobago and Tobagonians on constitutional reform, governance and other issues.

Among other things this team found that the feeling existed that the current unitary state system discriminated against Tobago and should be replaced with a federal structure. Then came the Tobago Forum for Consensus on the Constitution presenting a report, coming out of questionnaires, lectures, meetings and seminars between 2007 and 2010. The forum concluded that "the people of Tobago definitely do not want a unitary state controlled as it is at the centre by the central government. They want a system which would allow them to make final decisions on whatever affects their lives here in Tobago."

Also in October 2007, the THA appointed a seven-member Committee on Constitution reform for Tobago, chaired by Dr John Prince. This committee concluded that "the current relationship between the Cabinet and the THA exexecutive council was of a 'master-servant nature' and that there should be 'a legislative format which (would) give meaningful application to devolution of power in a manner…consistent with self-determination and autonomy'; consideration should be given to the federal model for Trinidad and Tobago…" (The Green Paper) .

So there we have it. Every structured enquiry on constitutional reform for Tobago in the last six years has shown that, consistent with their history, Tobagonians, given a choice, would opt for greater control of their affairs.

So, there is a long and well-documented history up to the present time of the people of Tobago yearning for internal self-government. In the light of this long history it ought not to have surprised many Trinidadians when in the run-up to the THA elections, Dr Winford James, Tobagonian scholar and political commentator, commenting on the now discredited Constitution (Amendment) (Tobago) Bill, 2013, described it as "a wicked piece of legislation—deceptively wicked… the island (Tobago) seems headed to becoming a slave colony of Trinidad and (that) Cabinet is waging war against Tobago."

Now after the elections, Dr Vanus James, Tobagonian scholar and political activist, is quoted as saying: "The people of Tobago sent a clear message to the national community that they did not want to be a colony of Trinidad…."

And in more measured tones, Mr Orville London, Tobagonian and newly re-elected Chief Secretary of the THA, in setting the context for his administration, put party politics in its place, proclaiming "Tobago first, PNM after. " The message is clear —not from commentators and politicians in Trinidad however well informed and experienced they are—but from Tobagonians—they want greater control over their destiny.

It would be a cruel and absurd irony, if we as Trinidadians, previous subjects of a colonial power, were to ourselves now behave as a colonial power—lording it over a people—Tobagonians—who like us were once subjects of that same power.

It is time, peacefully and without rancour, to reset the relationship between Trinidad and Tobago.

• Ashton Brereton was born and lives in Trinidad and is a long time visitor to Tobago. He is a Human Resource Management Specialist with degrees in History from UWI, Mona and from the University of Toronto. He believes we should all strive to make positive

contributions to the long-term

development of Trinidad and Tobago.

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