It was called a debate but it really wasn't since there was no opportunity for rebuttal.
But it has generated its own controversy, with one party, the People's National Movement (PNM), registering its disappointment at the violation of the agreed rules. Furthermore, the PNM said the matter gave rise to the issue of trust in arranging and agreeing to debates in the future.
At the start of the debate, among the three candidates vying for the position of Chief Secretary in the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) election—Orville London, Ashworth Jack and Hochoy Charles—chairman of the Debate Commission Andrew Sabga had given a commitment that the issues of "Calcutta" (race) and "pumpkin seeds" (Jack's house) would not be raised. The debate was organised by the Chamber of Commerce
But Victor Hart, a former chairman of Transparency International, posed a question on race. Catherine Kumar, CEO of the Chamber, admitted yesterday that Hart's question caught her by surprise, given the agreement.
Yesterday, PNM labour relations officer Jennifer Baptiste-Primus wrote a letter of protest to Kumar about Hart's failure "to comply with the rules". Baptiste said in her letter that once this was done, the issue of Jack's house "should have been raised, thereby creating a level playing field".
"Of course, you will appreciate that in order for trust to be nurtured in such an important Commission, guidelines and assurances given must be kept", she said.
She later told the Express she was taken back by the moderator's decision to put that issue on the table and not allow Jack's house to be discussed.
Some spokespersons said the PNM party would be very wary about being part of any such arrangement in the future.
Hart told the Express the questioners were told there was an agreement not to personalise any question. He said this was why when he asked about corruption, he did not speak in terms of Milshirv or Jack's house but in terms of the corruption perception index.
He said on the issue of race, he did not make any reference to the specific use of race by any politician or any reference to "Calcutta" but merely asked about reports that unlike previous THA elections, the race card was being played in this election and what was the message Jack would send out to the electorate.
Hart said he accepted full responsibility for the question since the Debate Committee had no role in the wording or selection of the question.
Yesterday, both former head of the Public Service Reginald Dumas and political analyst Winford James said if, in fact, the rules governing the debate stated there should be no questions on the topic of race, the question should not have been allowed.
Dumas said he was surprised by the question because he had heard there was not going to be anything "to cause embarrassment to anybody and that, therefore, things like Calcutta, pumpkin and cucumber, and Milshirv would not be raised".
"I was a little taken aback...by the question," Dumas said, adding the issue of Jack's failure to submit his declaration of assets and liabilities was also raised. "Should that have been raised? I don't know. I would need to know exactly what the rules were (before commenting further on this issue)," he said.
James said if the theme was Tobago Economic Development, he did not understand where the question of race came in. James said while he had no difficulty with anybody asking any question, but to the extent they had agreed to concentrate on the theme of economic development, then all questions should have related to that theme.
James said if London felt the question was not in keeping with the agreement made by the parties, he should have said the question was violating the agreement, and he did not therefore want to answer it when it was posed. James said the issue also raised the question of the suitability of the moderator, who allowed the question to go through.
He noted the moderator also asked the candidates about their plans to deal with obesity in the population, which he said was an issue "outside of the political temperature". James said he also found it "offensive" the way people were being cut off in mid-sentence and without warning if they went over their time.
There were issues on the lack of follow-ups and the number of questions. "It would have been better to have fewer questions, with proper follow-up, than to have had so many questions that were very briefly answered," James stated.
James said it was difficult to determine a winner because of these issues. Each leader shone on different issues, he noted.
He said Jack was strong on the issue of corruption when he asked London about the cost overruns on many of the THA projects, London was convincing when he specified the accomplishments of the THA under his stewardship, and Charles was solid when he spoke of how he had laid the basis for many of the things which were being done and talked about.
However, James said the viewership was "robbed" because "there was no attempt whatsoever to have any of the speakers develop any of the points that they made".
Dumas said the debate was an interesting thing, but the structure of the debate had to be modified "because people were being cut off in mid-sentence in their replies". He said there were too many questions.
He said one must expect certain glitches and kinks. He said the debate was not as enlightening as one might expect because the time for responses was too short. "There was no follow-up, no rebuttal. So comments were made and were left hanging," he said. "But this was the first time it was done," he said.
Dumas said Jack would have surprised a lot of people who felt he was not chief secretary material. "I found that he conducted himself very well and he thought quickly on this feet," he said. He said this may have helped the undecided. He said he did not think the debate would be too critical to the election result because most people who were voting had already made up their minds.
"I think Jack did well. Orville, of course, as Chief Secretary was essentially on the defensive because he was being attacked by the other two. But I think that he conducted himself well enough," he said.
Dumas said however London made one comment about Tobago having 200 miles of the exclusive economic zone (EEC) which is "total nonsense" because this is the prerogative of an independent country, and Tobago was not an independent country.
"Neither Tobago (by itself) nor Trinidad can have an exclusive economic zone, but Trinidad and Tobago can have 200 miles of EEC, and given the location of Trinidad and Tobago, vis-à-vis to states nearby who would also have an entitlement to 200 miles, like Barbados, Grenada, Guyana or Venezuela, there is no way that this country would have 200 miles because it would have to sit down and negotiate with these other countries on how this space is to be used," Dumas stated.
Dumas said Charles seemed to be dwelling in the past, stating what had been done under his administration. "That's fine. But he went out of office 12 years ago," Dumas said. "The point is what plans you have for the last four years, and I am not sure that came over very clearly," he said.