It is both a privilege and a pleasure to address you today, as we celebrate the 34th anniversary of the Tobago House of Assembly. It is also my responsibility to remind all of us, that we celebrate this anniversary at a time of financial uncertainty at the national level, with the still unresolved issue of self-government for Tobago and a number of developmental challenges. During the next twelve months, the residents of Tobago and the other citizens of the country are likely to encounter some hurdles which will test our fortitude and our resilience, but most importantly, our commitment to island and country.
The recent decline in oil prices should provide a “wake up” call, not only for the political decision makers, but for every one of us. Changes will come, sacrifices will have to be made and we, in Tobago, will not be exempt. In that context, I wish to advise that the Tobago House of Assembly will be reviewing its priorities, especially with respect to infrastructural projects, as we prepare for any eventuality. Brothers and sisters, the prospect of an energy sector “under pressure” brings into even sharper focus, the need to accelerate the revitalisation of our tourism sector. The initiatives and the investments in recent years are beginning to bear fruit. The return of Virgin Atlantic, additional flights from British Airways, the overwhelming response to the Apollo charter out of Scandinavia, the designation of Tobago as the number one destination by the top Swedish travel magazine Globe Traveller; the anticipated increase in cruise ship passengers from 15000 in the 2014 season, to 60000 in 2015 and the encouraging responses from prospective new markets in Latin America and Canada signal a much brighter future for the sector. However, all these gains could be jeopardised if the central government does not make good on its commitment to upgrade the Arthur N R Robinson airport by the start of the next tourist season in November 2015.
The recent murders of German citizens Hubertus and Birgid Keil have shocked and traumatised all of us and I wish to reiterate my sincerest condolences to the family and friends of the Keils and my condemnation of this horrific act which is not reflective of the serenity of the island nor the warm and hospitable nature of the residents. I am heartened by the single-mindedness and seriousness with which the matter is being treated by the police service and I urge all residents to give your fullest cooperation as we ensure, not only that the perpetrator is brought to justice but that the Tobago environment remains unfriendly to the criminal element.
Despite these recent challenges, we must not lose sight of the fact that we have made significant progress in recent years. We can boast of one of the lowest unemployment rates in the region, at four percent. Headline inflation is significantly lower than in several areas throughout the country. More of our young people are grasping the educational opportunities available to them, with 13 percent of our workforce having completed tertiary education successfully. The vulnerable in our society are supported by a range of social programmes. The per capita availability of health care facilities, community centres, lighted recreational grounds, hard courts is among the best in the region and the infrastructural support, incentives and guidance provided to our farmers, fishermen and cultural artistes have sparked growth in these sectors.
It is also clear that there is work to be done. We are still heavily dependent on the service sector which accounts for more than 90 percent of the island’s GDP and the need for the diversification and transformation of the economy cannot be overemphasised. That transformation requires significant investment and a meeting has been requested with the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Trade and the Minister of Planning to discuss investment opportunities for the island. Encouraged by the recent court ruling, the Assembly is also poised to engage in a number of public private partnership arrangements for the construction of affordable houses and public buildings, the provision of additional hotel rooms and other critical developmental projects.
As we celebrate the 34th anniversary of the Tobago House of the assembly, we must be even more conscious of the fact that the objectives set out by the late Arthur NR Robinson in his 1977 statement, in the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago, have not yet been achieved. For almost four decades, disunity among the political forces of the island has been the major obstacle to the attainment of self-determination. We are running the risk of repeating the mistakes of the past and I am therefore appealing to all the leaders, the decision makers, the community activists, in fact, all Tobagonians to place their love for Tobago before their loyalty to any political entity. Let us unite in ensuring that our long outstanding aspirations are realised. It is the only way. The Prime Minister has made a public commitment to have her Cabinet consider my proposal that a team representing the Assembly and the political parties which participated in the 2013 Tobago House of Assembly election should meet with a central government team to make some firm decisions on the Tobago self-government issue. I am also awaiting the opinions of the senior counsels who have accepted the brief on the contentious issue of incursion by the Ministry of Tobago Development and other ministries and agencies into areas under the responsibility of the Tobago House of Assembly. This is decision time and if we unite now, the right decision would have to be made. Let us rally together so that in 2015, we can celebrate, not just Assembly Day, but Tobago Day, in commemoration of the fact that our island has finally achieved self-government within the sovereign democratic state of Trinidad and Tobago.
I must repeat my admonition that, as a people, we cannot aspire to greater autonomy without committing to greater responsibility. Each of us has to take personal responsibility to enhance productivity. Our attitude to work, our devotion to duty should signal our commitment to excellence, our passion for a better, stronger Tobago. Every division of the Assembly, every sector, every agency, every school, and every community has to be involved in the process. This is a time to demonstrate that focus, that resilience, that self-reliance, that fortitude, which typified the Tobagonian of the past. It is with the expectation that, as Tobagonians we will step up to the plate that I extend best wishes on our 34th anniversary of the Tobago House of Assembly.