A wave of change will sweep Tobago come 2013, as Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced last night that the Parliament's first order of business in the new year will be the debate of legislation which will see increased financial power for the Tobago House of Assembly (THA).
Among the major changes will be a doubling of the budgetary allocation to the THA, expansion of the island's territorial waters and law-making powers.
Speaking at the presentation of the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) candidates at Market Square, Scarborough, Tobago, Persad-Bissessar said the Constitutional (Amendment) (Tobago) Bill 2012 will be laid in Parliament on January 7 and debate will begin on January 16.
More autonomy for Tobago, she said, was one of the pledges made to the TOP led by Ashworth Jack, political leader and coalition partner in the People's Partnership Government.
Persad-Bissessar said in October, Cabinet considered all the recommendations made after wide consultation with Tobagonians, and has now drafted a Constitutional (Amendment) (Tobago) Bill 2012.
The bill, she said, seeks to amend the Constitution to enhance the legislative and executive powers of the THA with a view to promoting the internal self-government of Tobago.
She pointed out that the bill requires a constitutional majority and therefore will require a special majority of two thirds of the members of the House—therefore, the People's National Movement (PNM) support was crucial.
The Prime Minister disclosed that the bill proposes an increase, almost a doubling of national budgetary allocation, to the THA from the existing four per cent to six per cent to eight per cent.
In the 2012-2013 national budget, Tobago was allocated $3.4 billion.
"This means that more money will be made available for the development of Tobago by Tobagonians. In other words, the old maximum of 6.9 per cent is now the new minimum," said Persad-Bissessar.
Persad-Bissessar said the bill also proposes the THA to be equipped with law-making powers—in areas such as legal affairs, tertiary education, energy, Customs and Excise and public infrastructure.
Cabinet, she said, in formulating policy for matters in these areas, must consult with the THA.
"The effect of this is that the powers of the Parliament in relation to making laws for Tobago will be limited,'' she said. She further disclosed that three other new important provisions of the bill would be:
1. The establishment of a Secretary for Legal Matters in the THA;
2. More borrowing power for the THA (up to 25 per cent of the sum allocated per year to the THA under the Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP), without the approval of Parliament);
3. Extension of the jurisdiction of the THA—an extension from six to 11 nautical miles from the baselines of Tobago.
Persad-Bissessar said self-governance for Tobago is being made a reality thanks to Jack and the TOP, who were adamant in ensuring the policy changes would redound to the benefit of Tobago.
The Prime Minister briefly touched on the controversy surrounding Jack's private multi-million Hillsborough, Mt St George, house.
"Today I want to tell (Orville) London and (Keith) Rowley that this election is not about the House of Jack; this election is about the House of Assembly of Tobago," said Persad-Bissessar.
She added that the Tobago election was not about the Section 34 debacle which saw the firing of former justice minister Herbert Volney.
"Section 34 will not bring you internal self-government and more money in your budget," she said.
Persad-Bissessar also dispelled notions that the United National Congress was coming to take over Tobago and buy out the lands.
"We have no wish or desire to invade Tobago... my wish and desire is that everyone will rise in every space and every place, whether in Trinidad or Tobago," she said.