Thursday, December 14, 2017

'Tobago first, PNM after'

...but London admits the way forward is not about isolation


WELL-GROUNDED: Newly installed Tobago House of Assembly Chief Secretary Orville London with his wife Brigit, right, and daughter Orvian at his official residence, Lowlands, Tobago, yesterday.

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If Orville Delano London has his way, he may be sitting in the Cabinet in Port of Spain before his four-year term of office is up.

The Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) for 12 years running, and deputy political leader of the Opposition People's National Movement (PNM) is recommending a meeting between the Office of Chief Secretary and Central Government, possibly every three months to allow for the Cabinet to be informed about Tobago issues.

He sees the management of the relationship between Scarborough and Port of Spain as critical in going forward.

"I don't think the relationship with Central Government should be linked to personalities. I believe that discussions and meetings should be mandated, and that is one of my recommendations. I believe there must be specific instruction for Central Government and the THA to meet at least once every three months.

"I think this should be at the level of the Cabinet in Trinidad where the Cabinet would be informed about Tobago issues. This has nothing to do with whether Central Government likes us or not, but about the Tobago people and the nuances of our relationship with Central Government."

Always about the people's business, this is the kind of forward thinking and vision that has shown convincingly that London has what it takes to be a winner.

His record speaks for itself.

From 2001 to 2013, the former People's National Movement (PNM) senator from Parlatuvier has scored a hattrick, successfully beating out every political opponent in Tobago, be it the Democratic Action Congress, (DAC) the National Alliance for Reconstruction, (NAR) Independent candidates or the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP).

In fact, whether he admits it or not, London was key to breaking the 30-year-old jinx on the island, which had always kept the PNM in the political wilderness.

Following the THA inauguration ceremony last Thursday, a relieved London shared with the Sunday Express some insights into his political and private lives, and the road he has travelled since he joined the PNM in 1995; the toll it has taken on his family life and the gains he has made for the PNM, following a 30-year jinx.

Still, he is the first to admit that his political principles have more to do with the Tobago people than with any political party, a position that has served him well with the electorate.

"Tobago first, PNM after" is the mantra that has guided him politically and has kept him focused and grounded on Tobago soil and rooted in Tobago's vision for greater independence and governance of its own affairs.

As to his political future, London, a father of five, (three sons and two daughters) was adamant this was his last election.

"It is non-negotiable. There is no compromise in my decision. This is definitely my last election," he said.

"I am in transition mode," he explained.

London's latest victory last Monday almost did not happen since he wanted to step aside.

"I was not supposed to be involved in this election. I had made a decision to stay out because over the years my family has had to make a lot of sacrifices. I felt it was time to step down," he said.

"The only reason I became involved was because I felt the PNM chances may have been hampered, and I know that there is still so much work to be done, in terms of succession planning, and transitioning Tobago into a new era," he said.

But London, whose favourite meal is pigeon peas soup with pig tail and salt beef, which he cooks himself, believes it is time to put his political mantle down. He is expected to hold office until age 71 and he reiterated, "there is absolutely no circumstance that would make me go another term".

Sharing another secret, the man who has led the PNM through four successive elections admits that in his home it is the women who hold the power.

"I live with my wife, daughter, and my niece… I don't know if I am very fortunate or unfortunate but they don't allow me to get away with anything. When I do stupidness they tell me, very openly, very early and frankly. It helps to keep me grounded," he admits.

He admits as well that he is fortunate to have friends who are not afraid to speak their minds and keep him grounded, adding: "They critique and advise me over the years and I don't think I have lost contact with the grassroots."

Admitting that he is a "no frills" kind of leader, London prefers the market place to the spotlight.

"It is where I interface with the people when I regularly go to buy my ingredients and vegetables and they tell you things in a very informal way. I really enjoy that experience because it is another avenue that puts you on the ground," he said.

As to his role in the PNM resurgence on the island, London said, "I joined the PNM as a senator in 1995, and fought an election in 1996 and lost by four votes. In 1997 we lost a by-election and felt it was time to fully review the situation.

In 1998 we formed the Tobago Council because we felt we needed to debunk the negatives of the PNM being merely a Trinidad party. We felt one reason why the PNM was losing so convincingly was because Tobago was not convinced that the PNM would put the interest of the people first. So we formed the Council and the principle was and still is—we are Tobagonians first and PNM after."

"Based on that, we had our first major victory in the 2000 general elections in close to three decades, when Stanford Callender was elected MP for Tobago West and the PNM continued to win at the polls until Patrick Manning's snap elections in 2010 when we lost both seats."

London slammed National Security Minister Jack Warner's claims about "tribalism" in last Monday's polls, saying history has shown that Tobagonians vote on issues.

"We reject Warner's claims about tribalism because during the period 1980-2001 the people of Tobago supported ANR Robinson when he got into alliances with Trinidad, against an African-based party which was the PNM."

He pointed to Tobago's ability to swing from one party to the next over the years based on issues rather than ethnicity adding that for this reason, nobody can predict how a THA election is going to pan out. "We cannot predict…here we have a 12-nil, which even the PNM could not predict."

He said the issues were not about ethnicity, but about lies about a gas station and houses; disrespect for the THA Chief Secretary where an individual who is not even a minority leader is being given priority over the chief secretary, about the disrespectful way the Government dealt with THA Act, about the PM coming to Tobago to cast aspersions about people.

"Tobagonians responded to this, and voted against this because Tobagonians have concepts of fairness. The people understand that even though you are a politician you are a Tobagonian and must be treated fairly," he said.

"I say to Jack Warner, it is not that Tobago embraced tribalism, but it rejected mamaguyism and lies and deceit that the PP attempted to perpetuate."

London sees Warner's statement as denigrating to the electorate telling them they do not have the capacity to evaluate issues and arrive at a conclusion.

Admitting that the people did not choose the PNM because "it is a perfect party", London knows that the tide could change any time.

His stewardship over the next four years, without an opposition voice in the THA will face its greatest test, and already there are those, including the PNM political leader Dr Keith Rowley, who are warning against possible dictatorial leadership.

"Quite the contrary I see this as not an opportunity to be arrogant but to be introspective. We recognise that that euphoria can change to disenchantment," London said.

"That's why I have already made moves to put into place a process to ensure that democracy is not undermined. We have done a lot of things already. I have already arranged discussions with Vanus James (Tobago economist and political analyst) and former THA chief secretary as well as leader of The Platform for Truth (TPT) Hochoy Charles next week, and I am very open to discussions with the TOP.

"I have already written to the PM, to examine a proposal which I have put forward, that THA Act should be amended with a clause that says 'in the event that there is no minority leader, the President has authority to appoint two councilors'.

"I have also had contact with various interest groups such as the chambers and NGOs and will be meeting with them to discuss issues that would move Tobago forward."

London told the Sunday Express that while the situation was an opportunity to ensure that democracy was not undermined, if it works well it could bring a new type of democracy to the Tobago situation.

London said this election was different from the past because it was the first in which the Central Government had played such a pivotal role.

But, he said, "Quite interestingly it was to our advantage. It was the first election where the PNM was seen as the Tobago party. In the past efforts were made by many to portray the PNM as an outsider, but this time around, Tobagonians had to make a choice of the PNM as the party that defended Tobago against an opposition whose priority was not Tobago's priority."

Did he think at any time that the PNM would have won all 12 seats?

"Quite frankly, no… I was surprised about the 12 nil."

The Tobago Council, he said, expected "seven or eight seats, because all the polls showed wide margins, however when we went around on election day, we realised that the TOP's machinery had collapsed. We saw we had a chance to win all."

Additionally, said London, the PP ran a bad campaign.

"It was insensitive to the issues which Tobagonians considered critical; issues of credibility of the TOP leader, and the Tobago Act. When the PM can come to Tobago and say that Ashworth Jack's house was not an issue the people felt insulted. It is clear our opponents did not understand what the issues are, and they still do not understand what Tobago is all about."

For his part, London admitted he is yet to fully surmount his biggest challenge over the years as THA leader—that of preparing Tobagonians to take responsibility to go forward.

This, he said, had nothing to do with Central Government whether under Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar or anyone else.

He admits that the way forward is not about insulating or isolating Tobago from the rest of the world but really about sufficiently preparing Tobagonians to govern their affairs.

"This is something in motion, and I am not totally comfortable we have done enough," he said.

One thing is certain—London's brand of politics continues to be attractive to Tobago and it is clear as well that his political footprints will not be easily erased on the island.