A 24-page supplement, inserted in daily newspapers on separate days last week, signalled escalation in a war of words ostensibly between Trinidad and Tobago. The supplement, published under the seal of the Tobago House of Assembly, reprinted a bill the THA had passed on November 24 to give greater powers to itself.
"This is what they want," said the front-page inscription, referring to Tobagonians whom the THA claimed to have consulted over four years. Such a blunt statement of the case is in keeping with the verbal hostilities exchanged over the last three months of a "Tobago Spring", the term usable to characterize a local version of the potentially life-changing mood of unrest one year ago in the Arab world.
On one side, the PNM-dominated THA, elected in 2009, asserts a right to speak for all of Tobago. On the other, the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP), which won the two Tobago seats in the May 2010 general election, forms part of the People's Partnership coalition since then governing Trinidad and Tobago.
The TOP, also holding four of the 12 THA seats, had gained in 2009 so large a share of the popular vote, as to see itself historically beckoned to win office in Scarborough next time. Before the Partnership crowd in Chaguanas on Thursday night, TOP leader Ashworth Jack said: "January will come, and that will be the end of the PNM in Tobago."
Months yet remain for evolution, or revolution, in the "Tobago Spring", but Jack did not use the Mid Centre Mall national-scale platform to advance his own case for what the THA supplement calls "the future governance of the island". On Jack's behalf, Attorney General Anand Ramlogan is prosecuting the case for "internal self-government", the rubric that counters the PNM THA's notion of "future governance".
Two weeks before the THA supplement appeared, Ramlogan's office had published full-page ads promoting the government's 40-page Green Paper, "Towards Internal Self-Government for Tobago". The Green Paper, released in March, is available at public libraries, at regional and city corporations, and elsewhere.
In the contest, then, for T&T minds and hearts, a 40-page central government Green Paper is pitted against the THA's 24 pages of newsprint. The Attorney General's June 29 deadline for comments thus marks another high point of the "Tobago Spring".
A grudge match being waged in the fine print of proposed amendments to the T&T Constitution and the 1996 THA Act finds parallels in high-decibel political rhetoric. The PNM Tobago Council on May 18 denounced TOP for aiding and abetting "Anand Ramlogan's plot to impose his will on the people of Tobago."
One fine-print provision, raised to a level of high controversy, concerns definition of Tobago's maritime boundaries. The Green Paper, citing the Territorial Sea Act, proposes ten nautical miles. The THA Bill cites the Archipelagic Waters and Exclusive Economic Zone Act, without specifying a boundary measure. THA propaganda hand-outs, however, apply an interpretation of Tobago's entitlement, extending to 200 nautical miles.
A claim so expansive appears to encompass bpTT's just-announced Block 23(a) production-sharing exploration project northeast of Tobago. The startling implication is that T&T's largest energy company could find itself deemed a trespasser in waters claimed by the THA in the name of the new Tobago.
It's a measure of the newly radicalized posture of the PNM THA. As its critics note, the THA, not having then been consulted, uttered no protest in early 2010 when the Manning administration signed a delimitation treaty with Grenada.
The THA's "future governance" Bill contains other hard-line dispositions. It stipulates four years' residence in Tobago as the qualification anyone voting in a THA election or running for THA office. The Bill also proposes a Tobago entitlement to eight per cent of the T&T Budget (the Green Paper calls for 6.9 per cent).
A context in which a PNM THA must treat with a Port of Spain administration, which incorporates the reinvigorated TOP opposition within the Assembly, inevitably shapes the debate over "future governance" or "internal self-government". The publication of the THA Bill follows that of the government's Green Paper with which TOP leader Jack can identify, if not also claim ownership of.
Chief Secretary Orville London claims the THA had been on the reform road long before the Green Paper release. He cited motions moved by former Assembly member Hochoy Charles in 2007, and by Ashworth Jack in 2009. The latter led to formation of a committee to canvass Tobago constitution reform sentiment.
It turns out that Jack saw in the emergent People's Partnership an opportunity to advance his own political interest as well as his promotion of internal self-government, beyond what he envisaged coming out of the PNM THA process. Long converted to the Tobago self-government creed, Jack reflected on a visit to the relatively tiny two-island state of St Kitts and Nevis: "I could run around Nevis and don't sweat. And Nevis has more autonomy than Tobago!"
As Jack tells his story, in pre-election meetings with Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Jack Warner and Roodal Moonilal, he successfully bargained for inclusion in the Partnership manifesto of a commitment "for the first time" to internal self-government. It amounted to an end to the run around from London's THA whose reliability on the constitutional question he never trusted, certainly not while Patrick Manning was prime minister and PNM leader.
If the TOP could bet on its own process involving the central government, it could also afford to scorn the "future governance" endeavours of the London THA now freed of Manning overlordship. So Minority Leader Jack and his TOP colleagues walked out on the late 2011 THA debate toward the "future governance" Bill.
With only PNM THA members left in the chamber, he recalled: "They spoke to themselves for two days."
This allowed London to condemn TOP's abandonment of a Tobago "process", in favour of one emanating from central power in Port of Spain. Bitterly, the Chief Secretary recalls a 2009 Mt Irvine meeting, attended by Jack, to decide the "role, guidelines and deliverables" for the committee mandated to canvass Tobago.
"Problems came when the government changed," London said. Such problems persist for London, and for the private individuals and groups who undertook public-spirited research and study toward new constitutional arrangements for the Trinidad-Tobago unitary state.
Despite hopes for a single Tobago position, two separate sets of fine-print documents—one on green paper, the other on newsprint—have been put out for study and evaluation by a largely unclued, and likely unmindful, public. Beyond the hard-line positions, the two documents, addressed to "future governance" and "internal self-government" respectively, may have more in common than what distinguishes them.
Chief Secretary London defends the "process" leading to the THA Bill which, he thinks, should properly have been accepted by the government, and then made the basis of a Green Paper. Doing otherwise has amounted to "the total dissing of the Tobago voice", he said, noting that his "process" has been short-circuited by the central government in alliance with the TOP.
"Of course the campaign has started," said Jack referring to the January 2013 election.
Two of three people questioned about self-government by Tobago News on the streets of Scarborough last month answered:
• "Tobago cannot stand on its own"; and
• "We just not ready to govern ourselves."
A third launched into a bad-talking of Trinidadians who "only want to come over and have a nice time, with no crime."
But other voices making themselves heard are making a consciousness-raising experience of the Tobago Spring.
–To be continued