It is truly a historic time for Tobago’s governance and democracy. This is a defining moment for us to unite as a people, converting a challenge into meaningful change. And therefore, within this present legislative crisis also lies an opportunity for us to strengthen the chassis of the Tobago House of Assembly.
Firstly, I must commend every Tobagonian and eligible resident who exercised their franchise in the recently concluded Tobago House of Assembly elections. Indeed, we are blessed as a people to be able to continue engaging in free and fair elections, an opportunity denied to too many in this world.
As you are aware, for the very first time in the history of Tobago the twelve electoral seats are equally divided between two political parties. So, no side was able to secure an overall majority going in to the Assembly. While the oaths of office have already been administered by the President to all the elected assemblymen; we are yet to elect a Presiding Officer to conduct the business of the House.
Due to this impasse that has resulted from the voting process, the Assembly is not properly constituted and we are yet to progress to the elections of a Chief Secretary and Deputy Chief Secretary, as well as the appointments of the Minority Leader and Councillors in keeping with the Tobago House of Assembly Act 40 of 1996.
These recent developments are unprecedented in the Tobago space, so it is only natural that many of you are concerned and are seeking clarity regarding our island’s administration. “What happens to Tobago?” has been a popular question on the lips of many residents.
Well, given the sequence of events that have unfolded over the past week, I have been legally advised that the Assembly remains dissolved with the Executive Council continuing to discharge its functions in the interim. Section 34 (4) of the THA Act states: “The Executive Council shall continue to discharge its functions during any period that the Assembly stands dissolved.” And for Tobagonians who may be unsure about the definition of the Executive Council, it is the executive arm that comprises the Chief Secretary and Deputy Chief Secretary alongside no more than seven secretaries.
Additionally, the THA Act says that the Chief Secretary and the Deputy Chief Secretary shall vacate offices when a successor is administered the oath, in sections 36 (1) and (2). Therefore, Mr. Joel Jack and I, as incumbents, remain in these positions; a situation that I do not relish. Section 36(3) also provides that a Secretary shall vacate his office when a person is appointed or reappointed as Chief Secretary.
Notwithstanding what the law says, I am prepared to request the resignation of those Secretaries who did not seek re-election and were therefore replaced as assemblymen. Some of the remaining secretaries in the Executive Council will be assigned additional portfolios to facilitate this change. I believe that this is the right and proper thing to do in the unique circumstances which we now find ourselves. And let me also assure all of you, that the Executive Council will perform its duties with prudent restraint during this period.
So, Tobago will not be left without leadership at this crucial juncture, while we seek a practical way forward. This is consistent with the arrangements of democratic countries across the world, to ensure that the people are never without a government. The wheels of government must keep on turning.
Now is an uncertain period for the people of Tobago and the Tobago House of Assembly. However, I challenge all of us to adopt the perspective of stationed and not stuck. We are stationed to create a better institution to serve the needs and amplify the voices of the people of Tobago. Stationed to construct a more robust vehicle for our democracy on this island. And we cannot be intimidated by the novelty of this situation, but must focus our energies on attaining a reasonable and lawful solution to move us forward in a timely manner.
Other jurisdictions the world over, have dealt with balanced or ‘hung’ parliaments including Canada, Australia and New Zealand to name a few. Even the United Kingdom which this island, and country, fashions many of our governmental structures after, has experienced hung parliaments in its history, the most recent being in 2017 and 2010.
In Tobago, we are presently navigating uncharted waters, which must be treaded carefully to protect the constitutional rights of all. My counterpart Farley Augustine has suggested that the popular vote is the most democratic option to determine who should form the executive. While this is in favour of the People’s National Movement (PNM), the law does not provide for this, and it certainly does not allow for us to toss a coin or pull straws. He also suggested the use of Section 92 of the THA standing orders to break the deadlock, but section 9 of the same standing orders requires the presiding officer to deliberate and decide on this matter. Furthermore, section 7 of the THA Act states very unambiguously, “The Assemblymen shall, upon the swearing in referred to in section 6, elect a Presiding Officer to whom the President shall administer the oath set out in the Second Schedule”.
I do not expect a resolution to be found at the level of the political parties, therefore, the solution must be a legislative one. All of us are aware that there is only one law making body in this country, called the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago.
It is in this context that as Chief Secretary, I am requesting that the Prime Minister engage the Parliament to treat with this situation, as a matter of urgency.
There are two possible interventions from the Parliament to solve this deadlock facing the Tobago House of Assembly. The first being amendments to the current THA Act 40 of 1996, to facilitate another election with an odd number of seats. The other option is the passage of the Tobago Self Government Bill which is currently before the Parliament. I am of the firm view that the best option is the fastest one as I am sure all of you do not want this situation to drag on beyond a reasonable timeframe.
Brothers and sisters, there are those who will try to divide us by inciting forms of disturbances. There are those who will suggest that our current position is dictatorial or undemocratic, but this is far from the truth. I reiterate, the wheels of government must continue to turn in the best interest of all Tobagonians. This period requires patience, patriotism, and common sense. Therefore, I appeal to every Tobagonian to support and engage in lawful and orderly conduct during this unprecedented time.
Of course, let your voices be heard. After-all, democracy is buoyed by discussion and I am hopeful that both sides would engage with one another respectfully and amicably in the best interest of this island. Now is not a period of controversy for the Assembly, but a time of change. And true change requires cooperation and commitment to become a reality. Let me also challenge us to make it a time of curiosity and education for all of us residing on this island and by extension this country. Be curious and learn more about the operations, systems and laws that govern us as a people. Reignite that curiosity as we move forward! This moment is a catalyst for legislative change for the people of Tobago and for us as your chosen representatives to step up to the plate.
Finally, I thank all of you for your participation and patience. We anticipate that the processes engaged with the aim of solving this deadlocked situation, will be a transition that will be settled and executed in the shortest possible time. In the meantime we are required to be the responsible citizens we are known to be as we chart our course towards a peaceful and successful future.
All will be well in the end Tobago, we will get there!