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Tobago tomorrow

By Martin Daly

Tomorrow, January 21, the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Election will take place. There does not seem to be any reliable prediction of the likely outcome, possibly because the Tobago electorate, if thinking of change, may feel that change has been shown to have sharp teeth.

The perennial political issue in Tobago is what degree of autonomy should Tobago have in the conduct and direction of Tobago affairs? Theoretically, such a question should be a political issue for every Local Government unit or region of the unitary state of Trinidad and Tobago. However the reality is that, as an island separate from Trinidad with a significantly different way of life and history, the relationship between Tobago and Trinidad presents unique issues.

Relationships between different cultural entities within one sovereign territory are always a thorny issue. In the Caribbean we had the drama of Anguilla versus St Kitts/Nevis in the late 1960s. Further afield, the Quebecois have not always rested easily within Federal Canada.

There are three parties contesting the THA Election. The leader of one of those parties will become the Chief Secretary in the new Assembly, if his party gains a majority of the 12 seats in the Assembly. The even number of seats contested leaves open the possibility of a tie of which we have previous experience in Trinidad. In that event there will be new verses added to the political and social commentary calypsoes of the current Carnival season.

A 6-6 tie is not the only possibility. As there are three parties in contention we could have other permutations. One party holding two seats in a 5-5-2 split would present the most interesting situation politically. Legally we will have a stalemate if there is a voting deadlock preventing the election of a presiding officer.

In this THA election season we have had the usual bacchanal including numerous allegations and counter allegations of corruption. The incumbent Chief Secretary, Mr Orville London, is being asked to answer questions about deals which the THA made or did not make with syndicates domiciled both here and abroad.

Ashworth Jack, considered the more potent contender of the two leaders seeking to dethrone London from the office of Chief Secretary, is being asked, how he could build a grand mansion on the proceeds of the sale of pumpkin and cucumber. We will know by midnight tomorrow whether by analogy to Cinderella's coach, his house would have turned him into a political pumpkin or whether the Tobago electorate will provide a glass slipper to fit Kamla.

The bacchanal became serious when Hilton Sandy of the People's National Movement (PNM), gave his now infamous Calcutta ship warning. The Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) has made a clever and deadly advertisement out of the Calcutta ship statement by linking it to completely unrelated remarks of Keith Rowley made in 2010 about his being a sailor on a PNM ship. In this land of continuing self-delusion, the PNM has tried to say that the ad is objectionable and unfair. They should get used to the consequences of Sandy's ship up and not whine, because the fallout from the Calcutta ship remark will not end when the THA election ends.

Sandy has exposed the PNM to endless future licks in Trinidad on race relations. The Calcutta ship fallout will be with us as long as other choice phrases of the past like "recalcitrant minority", "all ah we tief" and "politics has a morality of its own". That makes Sandy a likely candidate for being thrown overboard, or, by further analogy to Cinderella, being turned from a sturdy political horse into a mouse.

Fortunately for us all, a new feature was introduced into the THA election in the form a televised debate among the three party leaders. As I indicated in a post assessment debate, which I was asked to give on television, the three leaders gave a good account of themselves. They responded to the debate questions maturely and with a grasp of the issues underlying the questions. Unusually for our Republic, arising out of a party political event, the country was the winner on the night of the debate.

I repeat my congratulations to the Chamber of Commerce for what it has done in bringing this type of debate into the political scene, but the Debates Commission must be less coy about the subject matter of the questions to be asked of the candidates in a debate. The question concerning the race bogey was very pertinent in light of the Sandy remark and it was appropriate to ask it.

There is, however, one important unfinished piece of debate business. The Debates Commission should publish the written rules to which the participants agreed and invite public comment on how those rules might be expanded or improved. We must not let future political leadership contenders escape a debate process which has the support of the public.

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