My fellow Tobagonians, I address you, today, on an issue which is critical to the future of Tobago and all Tobagonians; and, just as critical, to the relationship between the two islands of the Sovereign Democratic State of Trinidad and Tobago. I address you, today, in the face of a devious and orchestrated plot to undermine the legal, democratic and highly consultative process in which thousands of Tobagonians were involved. That process took more than four (4) years, as we worked towards achieving consensus on a Tobago position, in relation to the Review of the Tobago House of Assembly Act and relevant amendments to the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago.
You would all recall that the present process started in 2007, when the Tobago House of Assembly gave unanimous approval on a motion moved by the Minority Leader, Ashworth Jack.
The approval of that motion triggered the appointment of a Tobago House of Assembly Working Committee, charged with the mandate to solicit the views of the widest cross-section of individuals, groups and communities; and to prepare Draft Bills to be presented to the Tobago House of Assembly for debate and onward transmission to Cabinet; and then to Parliament for debate and final resolution.
Over the past four (4) years, no concern had ever been raised with the process. In fact, the Minority Members in the Tobago House of Assembly had even complained about the delay in bringing the Bills to the House. There was also no concern raised about the integrity of the process, nor about the impartiality of the Members and all those associated with the preparation and presentation of the final Draft Bills for debate in the House.
It was, therefore, extremely distressing when the Minority Leader, Ashworth Jack proceeded, not only to disassociate himself and the Minority Members from the process, but also to take the inexplicable decision to refuse to attend a Sitting of the Assembly, hiding behind the spurious claim that the proceedings were illegal. The Minority Leader is insisting that the Tobago House of Assembly must not debate these critical Bills until discussions are held and agreement reached with the Attorney General and the Prime Minister. He is also advocating that the Assembly discard the present process in favour of a Cabinet initiated “Green Paper“.
My fellow Tobagonians, it is important that I apprise you of some relevant facts, with respect to the process.
(a) The Bills which were presented have no political ownership. The Bills do not belong to PNM or TOP but to the people of Tobago, whose views and recommendations have been represented in the documents.
(b) The legal aspects of the process were guided by Senior State Counsel, Russell Martineau.
(c) I have also been advised that Sections 29 (1), (2) and (3) of the Tobago House of Assembly Act are critical to an understanding of the procedure which the Tobago House of Assembly must follow in moving this process forward.
They read as follows:
In the exercise of its powers under this Act, the Assembly may propose and adopt Bills in relation to the matters for which it is responsible under section 25.
Such Bills shall be debated in the Assembly in accordance with its Standing Orders and, if adopted, shall be transmitted by the Chief Secretary to the Secretary to Cabinet with a request for its introduction into Parliament for enactment into law in accordance with section 61 of the Constitution.
Upon the decision of Cabinet for the purpose a Bill that is so adopted shall be introduced into Parliament with a view to its enactment in accordance with the relevant Standing Orders.
It is pathetic and highly disturbing that a representative of the people of Tobago should use subsection (4) of section 29 only, with no reference to the other three (3) subsections, so that he could justify a position to give the Assembly what is in fact less authority and flexibility than it now enjoys under the Tobago House of Assembly Act.
My fellow Tobagonians, the procedures followed in bringing the present Bills to the House are identical to the procedures followed in previous Sittings. It is instructive to note that on the 25th February, 2010, the Tobago House of Assembly debated the following motion, “An Act to Provide for the Regulation of Marine Sports Activity in Tobago and Related Matters.” The Minority Leader and his team participated fully in the debate and made contributions, even at the Committee Stage.
It is also quite interesting that:
(i) The Minority Leader did not express any concern which he may have had about the legality of the Sitting with the Presiding Officer who is in charge of the House;
(ii) Secondly, the Minority Leader did not mention his concern about the “illegality of the Sitting” in any of his letters to the Chief Secretary, but chose to raise such concern in a Press Release issued shortly before the start of the Sitting rather than in the House itself where discussion of such matters properly belongs;
(iii) The Minority Leader and his team made no objection when the Bills had their first reading in the House on 22nd September, 2011, nor did they object when the Presiding Officer distributed to all Members, information on the proceedings to be followed, in the debate on the Bills.
Fellow Tobagonians, the Minority Leader’s recommendations to adopt the Green Paper proposed by the Attorney General’s office has serious implications for Tobago.
(i) The present process, which involved thousands of Tobagonians in four years of discussion and consultation, will have to be abandoned;
(ii) The Tobago House of Assembly, as an institution, will be eliminated from the decision making process;
(iii) Most importantly, all of the recommendations in the proposed Green Paper are included in the Draft Bills presented to the House and there are many provisions in the Draft Bills which are not included in the Green Paper. Tobagonians will, therefore, be placed in an inferior negotiating position.
Brothers and sisters, it is highly unfortunate that our representatives should be attempting to derail this critical process at this late stage where the major objectives are about to be achieved. However, regardless of the distractions, we must remain focused on our goal of achieving internal self-government for Tobago.
The approval of these Bills will place before Cabinet, and on the national agenda, a Tobago position which, if approved by the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago, would give Tobago the level of internal self-government for which the residents have been clamouring over many decades.
The Draft Bill to amend the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago includes provisions that will guarantee:
(i) that the Assembly has the right to make laws known as “Assembly Laws” for the peace, order and good governance of Tobago (in the area prescribed as Tobago) without reference to the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago;
(ii) that the Assembly, through the Executive Council will have the responsibility for all functions relating to Tobago, except for the eleven (11) functions for which the Central Government has responsibility; and
(iii) that the monies appropriated by Parliament, for expenditure of the Tobago House of Assembly in any Financial Year “shall be no less than eight percent of the national budget for that year.”
The major proposed amendments to the Tobago House of Assembly Act, include new provisions:
1. that will increase the number of Councillors to eight (8) with four (4) to be appointed “on the advice of the Chief Secretary”; two (2), “on the advice of the Minority Leader” and two (2) by the President, at his own discretion.
2. that will specify that a person must have been “residing in Tobago for a period of four (4) years” in order to qualify to be elected as an Assemblyman in a primary election or on a bye-election or as a Presiding Officer or appointed as a Councillor.
3. that will specify that a person must have been residing in Tobago over a period of four (4) years to “qualify as an elector in a primary election or a bye-election for the Tobago House of Assembly.”
4. that will ensure that the Assembly shall, “in relation to Tobago, be responsible for the form and implementation of the Assembly policy in respect of all matters save and except those set out in the Fifth and Sixth Schedules.”
5. that will guarantee “Tobago’s share of the national, marine and space resources pursuant to the Archipelagic Waters and Economic Zone Act.”
6. that will ensure that “the Assembly may for the efficient discharge of its responsibilities, borrow both in the local market and in international markets for capital expenditure.”
7. that will give additional responsibility to the existing Dispute Resolution Commission (DRC) “which shall be responsible for determining disputes referred thereto either by the Assembly or by Government on matters relating to this Act.”
It must be noted that, during the Committee Stage, in the processing of the Bills, all Members of the Assembly have the option to recommend further amendments and it would have been expected that all Members would involve themselves in consultations, with as wide a cross-section of Tobagonians as possible, to enable them to make relevant contributions. Any committed, self-respecting representative would have been focused on achieving those objectives, instead of pursuing an alternative process which eliminates the Tobago House of Assembly and attempts to give credibility to a document which will provide Tobagonians with less autonomy than they have demanded, over the decades, and less autonomy than they deserve today.
My fellow Tobagonians, we have come too far to turn back now. Let us, as we have done throughout this process, place the future of Tobago ahead of narrow partisan interests and let us support each other in placing a Tobago position on the national agenda for public scrutiny and Parliamentary debate.