The Tobago House of Assembly is this country’s oldest political institution. The THA was first incarnated in 1768 in the island’s former capital, George Town, which is now Studley Park. The capital moved to Scarborough in 1769, as did the offices of the 13-member elected House of Assembly (Lower House) and the appointed Legislative Council (Upper House). In 1877, representative government was abolished, with the Crown Colony introduced to handle the administration of the island. In 1889, Tobago was joined with Trinidad by the British Government.
The original THA was a colonial institution designed to run the island for the benefit of its small ruling class by passing laws and statutes and distributing land. However, the election criteria favoured white Christian males older than 21 and owning 10 or more acres of land, and so, in 1834, that Assembly opposed the British Government’s decision to emancipate enslaved Africans.
By contrast, the modern THA is open to any Trinbagonian residing in Tobago and wishing to stand for election to its 12 seats. It also includes four Councillors, three of whom are appointed in accordance with the advice of the Chief Secretary and one on the advice of the minority leader; and a Presiding Officer, who may or may not be an Assemblyman or a Councillor. In 2012, for the first time, the THA was without a minority leader, as the ruling PNM has been elected to all 12 seats. Consequently, a Public Interest Desk was established to allow the public to give their input on governance of the island.
Organisation of the Assembly
After 1980, the THA was formed into seven divisions, each representing a developmental concern. Today the THA comprises two main arms, the Legislative Arm and the Executive Arm, and 10 divisions – nine with particular remits plus the Office of the Chief Secretary, which oversees the others. This Assembly was created by Act 37 of 1980 for “making better provision for the administration of Tobago and for matters therein.”
The Legislative arm (Assembly Legislature) is where all members of the Assembly meet in plenary and/or in select committees to make policy decisions for the operations of the Assembly. These functions are supported by the Assembly Legislature Secretariat and headed by the Presiding Officer. The Clerk of the Assembly is responsible for the efficient discharge of functions of the business of the Assembly.
The Executive arm of the Assembly is headed by the Chief Secretary in his capacity as leader of the Executive Council. The Council has individual and collective responsibility for carrying out the tasks of the Assembly through its divisions. Each division is led by a secretary, with an administrator serving as the accounting officer responsible for producing the desired results of the division. The Chief Administrator is the most senior public officer in the administration and is attached to the Office of the Chief Secretary.
Currently the 10 Divisions are:
- Office of the Chief Secretary
- Community Development, Enterprise Development and Labour
- Education, Innovation and Energy
- Finance and the Economy
- Food Production, Forestry and Fisheries
- Health, Wellness and Family Development
- Infrastructure, Quarries and the Environment
- Settlements, Urban Renewal and Public Utilities
- Sports and Youth Affairs
- Tourism, Culture and Transportation
Membership of the Assembly
Offices within the Assembly:
- The Presiding Officer is elected by the Assemblymen and presides over all Sittings of the Assembly.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer is elected from among the Assemblymen and Councillors, and deputises for the Presiding Officer in his/her absence.
- The Chief Secretary is elected from among the Assemblymen and heads the Executive Council.
- The Deputy Chief Secretary is elected from among the Assemblymen and deputises for the Chief Secretary in his/her absence.
- The Executive Council comprises the Chief Secretary, the Deputy Chief Secretary and up to seven other secretaries (increased from the original five of THA Amendment Act No. 17 of 2006). They are selected from among the other Assemblymen and Councillors, as advised by the Chief Secretary. This body is responsible for carrying out the functions of the Assembly. Seven secretaries, along with the Chief Secretary and Deputy Chief Secretary, are assigned specific areas of responsibility within the Executive Council but are collectively responsible for all decisions of that Council.
- Assistant Secretaries assist Secretaries in specific areas of their respective portfolios.
- The Leader of Executive Council Business controls the arrangements of business in the House, consulting with the Minority Leader as necessary.
- The Minority Leader is the Assemblyman who, in the opinion of the President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, commands the support of the largest number of Assemblymen who do not support the Chief Secretary. The current Assembly has no Minority Leader, so a Public Interest Desk was established so that the public can have direct participation in the island’s governance.
- Assemblymen are elected members who have not been assigned any special responsibilities as they relate to the conduct of the business of the Assembly.
- Councillors are nominated members who have not been assigned any special responsibilities as they relate to the conduct of the business of the Assembly.
Dissolution of the Assembly
The elected Assembly continues for four years from the date of its first sitting after any primary election, and then stands dissolved unless the Assembly, by resolution, dissolves itself at an earlier date.
The President, after consultation with the Prime Minister and the Chief Secretary, fixes the date of a primary election. The date of that election must fall between two and three months after the dissolution of the Assembly.
Powers of the Assembly
The THA has 33 areas of responsibility:
- Finance, that is to say the collection of revenue and the meeting of expenditure incurred in the carrying out of the functions of the Assembly
- State Lands
- Land and marine parks
- Museums, archives, historical sites and historical buildings
- Public buildings and the maintenance of the residences of the President and the Prime Minister
- Culture and the Arts
- Community Development
- Food Production
- Town and Country Planning
- Infrastructure, including air and sea transportation, wharves and airports and public utilities
- Highway and Roads
- Industrial Development
- The environment
- Customs and Excise
- Health Services
- Library Services
- Education including Curriculum
- Social Welfare
- Postal services and collection of revenue
- Statistics and Information
- Plant and Animal Quarantine
- Such other matters as the President may, by Order, assign to the Assembly.