An Appeal to Support Tobago’s Self Government

It is the shared Tobagonian dream that has set us on an elusive quest, spanning a period of over forty years.

Along the way, significant inroads were made through Tobago House of Assembly Act 37. of 1980, and later Act 40. of 1996, both debated and passed in the parliament of Trinidad and Tobago.

This must never be seen as Trinidad giving Tobago additional powers, but the process of law making in this country requires that the national parliament of Trinidad and Tobago consider bills and pass them as laws for the good governance of this country.

While these pieces of legislation laid the foundation and conferred additional powers to the Tobago House of Assembly—there was still more ground to be gained.

Since then, Tobagonians who are passionate about this island’s development continued to advocate fiercely for increased self-government. This long sought after goal hung over our heads for decades, and will now be debated in our National Parliament in a matter of hours.

What transpires tomorrow in our Parliament is every Tobagonian’s business, as our future hinges on the strength of this moment. This is about attaining an evolved self-identity; a more empowered island government with significantly greater executive authority; a more empowered Tobago legislature that can shape its own laws for the first time in the history of the Tobago House of Assembly; and increased financial leverage for the continued transformation of this island.

These draft bills hold tremendous power to move us forward as a people. They hold power to address the current limitations of the Tobago House of Assembly and therefore impact directly on our local progress, and the lives and livelihoods of our people here in Tobago. Herein also lies a golden opportunity for Tobagonians to self-actualise and reach for something greater.

Extensive public consultations have occurred prior to this upcoming parliamentary debate. This latest thrust began since 2014, and various recommendations have come forth since then. The impassioned discussions surrounding these bills really remind us of the importance of this issue to Tobagonians; that our thrust for self-autonomy also requires sensitivity, as this legislative process is also a deeply emotional experience.

Many of the major concerns regarding our self-governance are being addressed by these two critical pieces of legislation. Such as the longing for increased funding to further accelerate our island’s development, a concern that is often voiced in the Tobago space. With this newly proposed legislation, the Assembly now has the possibility of receiving a minimum budgetary allocation of 6.8% of the national budget; an increase from our previous minimum of 4.03%. If this allocation was applicable to the last budgetary exercise, Tobago would have received an additional $1.3b.

I am aware that some of our brothers and sisters in Trinidad, even some legislators, have suggested that Tobago is already getting too much fiscal resources. However, I wish to reiterate that the majority of Tobago’s funding goes towards recurrent expenditure, the payment of wages and salaries and goods and services. Actually, over the last forty years, Tobago’s development allocation has never exceeded $403m for any fiscal year.

Additionally, this legislation also influences the likelihood of achieving a new dimension of governance in the Tobago House of Assembly. One where we would be accorded law-making powers to directly govern and shape our economic, social and cultural wellbeing.

Many of our current challenges can be resolved through legislation. We need legislation to regulate and improve our tourism sector; we need legislation to protect our natural environment and heritage; we need legislation to establish the necessary environment and incentivise further foreign direct investment; we need legislation for the establishment of the framework to exploit our renewable energy resources, which will be an industry by itself; and we need legislation even to better manage and improve our agriculture sector.

It is virtually impossible for a national parliament engaged with issues such as crime, the national economy, and other issues of national importance, to prioritize Tobago’s legislative issues. Therefore, we need those powers in Tobago forthwith. Tobago urgently needs a legislature that doesn’t only pass insignificant motions once per month, but real laws as often as is required.

This island’s democracy will also benefit significantly from the welcomed addition of independent voices to the Assembly Legislature. The exciting changes to the arrangements for the Public Service Commission here in Tobago, will allow us to manage our public servants in a far more efficient and effective manner. This will mean that issues such as the filling of public service vacancies, promotions, and payment of acting and other allowances, will be dealt with more speedily. Ultimately, we will be able to finally build and manage a more effective and responsive Public service that will serve all Tobagonians. These are just a few of the game-changers that this legislation can engineer.

Undeniably, a lot is at stake for Tobago if this effort falls down. So, we cannot afford to lose the considerable momentum gained, and stall at this juncture. This time we must press on for the greater good of this island, and by extension this Nation. So I am genuinely appealing to all our legislators involved in this historic process, PNM, UNC, and Independents, to give your support and do your part in making Tobago’s self-governance a reality.

There are strengths in this proposed legislation, and we can look clinically at solutions for its perceived shortcomings. But Tobago would be at a great disadvantage if this entire process starts all over again. Come on, it’s been over 40 years.

Let us see this legislation as a foundation that can be reinforced and strengthened over time. Brothers and sisters, there is promise in this journey and in due time we can stretch closer to our desired destination.

We have referenced Scotland so many times in these discussions about autonomy. Brothers and sisters, please let us not forget that the devolution of Scotland from the United Kingdom was a process of multiple tweaks after the ball got rolling.

In 1997, the Scots voted for greater autonomy and the Scotland Act was passed in the UK’s Parliament. Years later, the Calman Commission was established with a mandate to review the Scottish Parliament’s powers and enhance its financial accountability. Then in 2008, Scotland received even more responsibility for planning and nature conservation of its islands. The following year, the Calman Commission recommended a further devolution of powers to the Scots.  A number of other key developments later occurred, which accorded greater authority to Scotland, including powers to control income tax rates and bands in 2016.  Scotland did not end, where they started.

We can even look at the journey of our beloved nation of Trinidad and Tobago. After achieving Independence from Great Britain in 1962, we did not stop there. We decided to go a step further with our self-determination in seeking republican status. Another example that self-determination is in fact a journey and not the be-all and end-all.

If we look to the motto of the Tobago House of Assembly, we are also being encouraged to view change as a process. ‘She becomes more beautiful’ essentially tells us that there is always room for growth. The opportunity exists to move forward and become better, once we are truly willing. Indeed, the history of the Assembly also demonstrates this adage. The genesis of the modern Tobago House of Assembly began with Act 37. of 1980. This Act was later repealed with the subsequent legislation of Act 40. 1996, which sought to correct the gaps of the first.

These examples all show us that if we are determined and willing to go the extra mile together, we will eventually ease closer. Therefore, let us be wise and choose progress over perfection as it may never come.  Instead, let us put one foot in front of the other, on the road towards our shared goal.  Eventually, we will get there.

Finally, Tobago’s contribution to Trinidad and Tobago is just as important as Trinidad’s contribution to Trinidad and Tobago. Tobago has contributed some of the greatest human resources to this country; from great leaders and public servants, to great sports men and women who brought this country pride and glory time and time again.

We can definitely contribute more. Tobago will become the mecca of tourism in the Caribbean. Tobago will exploit renewable energy that will bolster our brand as a clean and green destination. Tobago will feed the nation, and even the wider Caribbean. Tobago can and Tobago will do all of this and more, for the benefit of Trinidad and Tobago.

And Let us not forget the vast amounts of this country’s energy resources located just off Tobago.

So, let us therefore move forward into a brighter future beyond the challenges of this pandemic.  Let us ignore the few tribalists, racists, and separatist voices who often try to pit Tobago against Trinidad, or even South Trinidad against East Trinidad.  Instead, let us invoke the deep spirit of patriotism, pride, and nationalism. There is one Republic, one Nation, and we are stronger together!

Tobago does not want independence from Trinidad, but a deeper entrenchment of those very telling words in our national anthem, side by side we stand. These bills represent a giant step in the right direction.  Let’s get it done! This is Tobago’s time. God bless you and God bless our nation.

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