Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Two Tobago issues

In his 2014 New Year message THA Chief Secretary Orville London unsurprisingly spoke about internal self-government for Tobago. Nothing, he said, was “more important” for the island “than the achievement of the level of autonomy” desired since the time of APT James. (Personally, I consider raising the level of education much more important, but let that pass for now.)

Contrary to the Prime Minister’s remark that the issue was “almost dead”, he would not allow it “to die, (or) even to rest.” He had therefore set up a “committee to review the several actions of the central government (influencing) the effective implementation of the (1996) THA Act, and to make recommendations.” And he was “convinced that all Tobagonians … (had) a responsibility to collaborate” in reaching the self-government goal in 2014. He had accordingly invited representatives of the PNM, TOP and Hochoy Charles’ Platform of Truth to a meeting to “initiate discussions on a collaborative approach to that end.”

I am not sure how a “collaborative approach” logically follows on the unilateral establishment of a committee, but let that too pass for now. I want for the moment to look at Tobago’s recent record in presenting a common front on internal self-government.

In 2007, after the flawed Ellis Clarke draft constitution of the previous year, I led a team which between January and September visited several parts of Tobago to seek the views of residents on what should be the relationship between Tobago and Trinidad. In our October 2007 report we said that we “firmly believe(d) there should be a Tobago position on constitution reform and not a series of possibly conflicting positions which reflect(ed) political partisanship/or other influences.” The team had therefore “deliberately refrained from making recommendations of its own.”

The team took this stance against the background of the knowledge that another group called the Tobago Forum for Consensus on the Constitution,” co-ordinated by Christo Gift, had come into being in December 2006. It’s a good thing we acted that way, because within days of the appearance of our report, a copy of which was provided to London, the Executive Council announced its own committee, headed by Dr John Prince. Inter alia, the committee would review the THA Act and also the Constitution “with special reference to a Tobago position on constitutional reform.”

Earlier, in May 2006, a THA Special Select Committee had been appointed “to review the (THA Act) and … the (Clarke) draft Constitution of (T&T) with special reference to a Tobago position on constitution reform.”

Duplication, you say? What duplication? What better road to the Holy Grail of collaboration than four committees simultaneously and separately performing the same task with the same mandate? At least my group—and I expect Gift’s—didn’t cost the taxpayer a penny. The other groups may wish speak for themselves.

In early 2009, nearly five years ago, I suggested to London that when all the teams had finished their work they should meet to hammer out a common Tobago position. As Chief Secretary, I further suggested, he should lead the charge. He at once agreed. And then he lapsed into total silence in this regard.

In 2010, on the People’s Partnership’s manifesto promise of internal self-government, I convened a new team to draft a replacement THA Act. London and his operatives promptly insinuated that we were in the pay of the government, sent by Anand Ramlogan (who at my request had kindly provided us with drafting assistance) to undermine the THA and the Prince committee, which he constantly described as “distinguished” or “stalwarts”. My group could only conclude that he viewed us as neither. Perhaps Gift’s group shared that sentiment.

Still convinced, despite the dismissal of our efforts, that it would be in Tobago’s best interest for all to work together, I made an appeal to that end at a Prince committee public meeting on March 31, 2011, offering our draft Bill for discussion. My team did subsequently have one meeting with Prince’s on May 12, and Dr Eastlyn McKenzie, a member of the Prince committee, and I appeared together on Tobago television.

Then, to my astonishment, I received on September 1 an invitation to an event the following day “to witness the handover of the (final Draft Report from Senior Counsel Russell Martineau).” I assumed I was being invited to give the impression that I approved the document being presented. The only trouble was that I had never seen the document—indeed, I had no idea until then that it even existed. I declined the invitation.

As you might guess, the Prince proposal’s next stop was the THA. London gave an undertaking to have the people of Tobago comment on it before debate by that body. If this happened, I did not hear. Yet in March 2012 the THA Executive Council set up yet another committee, this one “to examine the proposed constitutional amendments in relation to Tobago, for conformity with the wishes of the people of Tobago.” If you are confused, imagine my position. But we weren’t finished with the sinuosity.

The committee to which London referred in his New Year message is also, among other things, to examine the 1996 THA Act and “the full gamut of authority and responsibility afforded the Assembly.” Remarkable. Nearly 20 years after the Act’s passage, and after all the shouting and tumult over internal self-government, the THA still doesn’t know for sure what powers it has!

London, Charles and fleetingly visible Ashworth Jack met on January 7. They agreed on the necessity of “a unified and sustained approach.” At a second meeting to be held within one month they hope to reach “a consensus on the non-negotiable demands (and) strategies…and measures to be implemented for the meaningful participation of (the public).” I see.

A final point (for now). Especially given Keith Rowley’s comments last year in and out of Parliament, and London’s recent assertion that only the residents of Tobago are concerned about Tobago, may I ask what exactly the PNM’s policy is on Tobago internal self-government?

• Reginald Dumas is a former ambassador and former head of the Public Service

—Part 1 appeared on January 13