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Trinidadian Independence or Tobagonian secession?

By Winford James

Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, I ran out of space last column before I could properly develop the third reason why the report of the Constitution Reform Commission (CRC) was dangerous and why you should reject it. That reason is that “the report would pave the way for the break-up of the union”. I take it that you read the matter-of-course implication that the break-up would occur if your government adopted the relevant ideas in the report and somehow managed to enshrine them in a new Constitution.
As I pointed out in the first offering, the CRC, in a document purporting to speak to the reform of a national constitution, leaves Tobago, which is one half of the nation, completely out of the picture on the absurd pretext that its mandate did not extend to the Tobago House of Assembly Act 1996.
How do you reform a national constitution, Prime Minister, if you artificially reduce the country? And how can you seek to do so in a political climate where 1) Tobago has been clamouring, not merely for more control over its own affairs, but also for a meaningful voice in some national domains (e.g., the Central Bank, immigration, foreign policy, ports) within the governance framework of a federation of states; 2) the country (and certainly Tobagonians) now knows the island has an abundance of oil and gas in its northern waters and therefore can mind itself; 3) Tobagonians have been far more concerned than Trinidadians to have the Constitution reformed even though many Trinidadians are also concerned to, in the words of Prof Selwyn Ryan, “circumscribe the greed and the power hunger of the executive and also to find a way to tame the ethnic monster”?
It seems that the CRC was not careful to not send the message that its mostly Trinidadian mindset sees Tobago as an immaterial appendage to Trinidad—something you can facilely tack on to (and off from) Trinidad without significantly affecting the core of national governance.
This is sad Prime Minister, just sad, not simply for the tyranny of the majority it reflects, but, more importantly, for the failure of dialogue, socialisation, and new knowledge over the years to dislodge from the Trinidadian mind the view that Tobago is not all that important to the fortunes of the country given its tiny size and its economic dependence on Trinidad.
As we say on social digital media and on our phones these days, SMH—shaking my head.
Prime Minister, one of the major recommendations of the report is that “[t]he Senate should be elected by proportional representation (PR) using the Hare method.’’ It is in fact the first recommendation in the chapter on reform of the Parliament. The CRC intends thereby to diminish single-party domination and force the creation of conditions for powersharing and coalition by political parties, particularly in relation to the election of a prime minister. The CRC hopes that inconclusive outcomes would be finally settled by referenda in a system of fixed dates for elections.
So there it is: the problem that PR would fix is single-party domination—this, in an ethnically diverse society. It would have been very helpful if the CRC had illustrated how PR would do so, but perhaps the abstruseness of the matter made illustration a daunting exercise.
But let’s suppose, Prime Minister, that PR would end single-party domination through powersharing and coalition creation, wouldn’t one of the results be fragmentation of government via maverick control of ministries by coalition partners? A party could be part of a governing coalition on the basis of winning, say, one seat and joining that seat to the seats of the majority governing party in exchange for a ministry. In such a case, what would prevent that party from doing its own thing in the management of that ministry?
It’s been known to happen in places with governments elected by PR. Neighbouring Suriname is a case in point, and Dr Hamid Ghany, if not the other members of the CRC, would have been aware of that. Shouldn’t the CRC therefore have explored the negatives of the alternative method of election it was proposing, not only in the interest of good scholarship, but also in the interest of a credible recommendation?
To reduce the matter to its essence, which is better? Single-party domination or coalition government fragmentation? Where are the arguments?
But, Prime Minister, that is not the most important issue raised by the PR proposal; the fate of Tobago is. How would PR benefit Tobago? This is what the CRC has to say:
“[T]he people of Tobago will (sic) be able to have their political groupings represented in the Senate to advocate their positions by virtue of earning the votes of the Tobagonian electorate. This would guarantee a place in the Senate as determined by Tobago’s votes’’.
A guaranteed place in the Senate. That’s all. SMH, Prime Minister.
I imagine that should be two places in the Senate since there are currently two seats in the House of Representatives, and since the report is recommending that, apart from the Independent Senators, there be the same number of Senators as there are representatives in the new Parliament. So Tobago would have two guaranteed Senate seats where there is none now. And that would be good enough!
I imagine, Prime Minister, that, in order to stop single-party domination, Tobago political parties would seek to sell their seats to the majority party emerging from the election results in Trinidad. But I hasten to add that our political history has no joyous news for Tobago in that regard. Neither coalition with the PNM nor coalition with the UNC has helped Tobago’s cause of self-determination within a federal framework, and coalition has happened multiple times with the former and two times with the latter.
The real danger of the PR proposal is that it would mash up the union by either causing Tobago to secede since PR is not going to cater to its long-standing and urgent political ambitions or causing Trinidad to go independent since it doesn’t seem able to break out of its refusal to understand Tobago’s cause. Neither you nor I would want that, would we?
But Prof Ryan tells me not to worry: from his experience, PR is not going to see the legal light of day in the current circumstances.
You think that is all I have to worry about, Prime Minister?

• Winford James is a UWI lecturer and political analyst
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