The series of events co nducted by the People's Partnership in Tobago last week which included the opening of several facilities on the island, the re-opening of the Magdalena Grand Beach Resort and the sod-turning ceremony for a new service station at Roxborough, were planned not only to celebrate the party's second year in office but to signal as well the launch of the campaign for the THA elections due in January next year.
So Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar lost no time in characterising Chief Secretary of the THA, Orville London, as both a "bully'' and a "cry-baby''. Mr London for his part was more concerned to train his guns on TOP leader, and THA Minority Leader, Ashworth Jack whom he accused of "colluding" with the Government to "undermine the majority and create a scenario where the autonomy of the THA is almost permanently eroded."
That the campaign should have started so long before the election is due is perhaps not surprising. In the first place the UNC, the dominant force in the Partnership, revels in election campaigns. They bring a welcome relief from the nuisance of trying to give the appearance that they are running a government.
But more significantly, in the case of the THA elections, they present the opportunity to wrest political authority from the last bastion of the PNM political power and, in so doing, ensure that the TOP remains firmly locked in the embrace of the Partnership which has suffered some serious cracks of late.
It is unfortunate, therefore, that if the early skirmishes are any indication, the central issue around which the campaign is going to be fought is that of internal self-government for Tobago. It is unfortunate because that issue is the most serious constitutional issue to be faced by the people not only of Tobago but of Trinidad as well for many years and it is greatly to be feared that, in the context of a bruising election campaign (is there any other kind?), the kind of serious discussion which the issue demands is going to be buried under an avalanche of robber talk and rubbish.
Already much of the early debate has centred not on any of the substantive issues but on which bill is the true-true bill. This arises from the fact that there are three draft bills on internal self-government in circulation. Two of these bills are the product of an exercise commissioned by the THA and the other comes in the Green Paper published by the Government. This Government draft is based substantively on the work done by a committee co-ordinated by Reginald Dumas.
Mr London's position is that he wants the Prime Minister to respect the Tobago House of Assembly by sitting down with him and discussing the bills his Executive Council had commissioned. As far as he is concerned those bills constitute the official position of the duly elected representatives of the people of Tobago while the Green Paper he charges "basically emanates from a group of private citizens and was given to Cabinet by the THA's Minority Leader.''
The Prime Minister for her part accuses Mr London of trying to "bully" the People's Partnership Government into approving "carte blanche," two bills he submitted to her to establish internal self-government for the island.
The fact that there has been little debate between the contenders on the substantive issue of the bills is cause for serious concern. The fact is that two of those bills are constitutional amendment bills and both of them propose serious and radical changes to the existing Constitution and to the very structure of the nation of Trinidad and Tobago as we know it today.
It is for this reason that we must be greatly alarmed about the fact that the Prime Minister announced, at a party rally in Tobago, that she has set up a committee comprised of three persons (political scientist Hamid Ghany, attorney-at-law Christlyn Moore, and attorney-at-law Martin George) to hold consultations with the people of Tobago on the provisions of the various bills. The committee has been given one month to complete its work.
It is inconceivable that this Government could seriously be contemplating bringing to Parliament any Bill, regardless of its provenance, which contemplates a radical reordering of the Constitution and governance structure of Trinidad and Tobago and to do so without any consultation or discussions with the people of Trinidad. This simply cannot be allowed.
In fact, from the very start of this process the Government has acted as though the issue of internal self-government for Tobago is an exclusively "Tobago'' issue. The Green Paper was first published months ago as a pull-out in the Tobago News which is circulated mainly in Tobago.
And, notwithstanding a release from the Attorney General's office which stated that the Green Paper "would be made available to all members of the public "it was many weeks before that document became available on the Government's website and it is still not readily available in print anywhere in Trinidad.
That very same release from the Attorney General's office made the point that, "What is prepared is a profound change in the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago. It will affect the entire nation, not just a part of it and the entire nation (Trinidad and Tobago) must therefore have the opportunity to express its views.'' Now we find that consultations on the Bills are for Tobago only. And, given the fact that the committee has been given only one month to have its consultations, can the Government argue that consultations are intended for Trinidad as well?
Let me, for the record, note that I fully support the concept of internal self-government for Tobago. But any such fundamental change as envisioned by both of these bills deserves comprehensive and exhaustive discussion throughout the length and breadth of Tobago and Trinidad.
Tobago has every right to want to bring to an end its status as a "ward'' of Trinidad. But such emancipation cannot be bought at the price of the marginalisation, disenfranchisement and utter disregard for the people of Trinidad. Trinidad must also not become a "ward'' of Tobago.
The supporters of internal self-government in Tobago had better be careful that this is not exactly the impression that this Government wishes to give to their brothers and sisters across the water.
• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean. He is a long-standing member of the Tapia House Group and works as a human