The THA election is over for now, and issues of corruption, the use of public funds, governance and internal self government dominated the campaign trail. But should Tobago get internal self government as has been demanded by the island then can its economy stand on its own, or will it simply be a case of taxes from Trinidad being remitted to an island that has no responsibility to account for its use?
Well, Tobago-born economist Dr Vanus James believes that Tobago’s economy must be seen in the context of what he calls Tobago’s waters and the hydrocarbons that are contained in them.
He argued that Tobago’s waters encompasses 60 per cent of all the maritime boundary of Trinidad and Tobago and that the recent BHP/BP gas find in the Northern License and the Shell Barracuda and Colibri projects are really Tobago’s gas projects.
“If by Tobago you mean Tobago with appropriate boundary—the median line boundary—all the BHP Billiton finds and the Shell finds are in Tobago in that context,” James insisted.
James argued Tobago does not want to be a processor of natural gas and would happily see it developed in Trinidad which already has the infrastructure in place. He asserted that the long-term sustenance of Trinidad’s gas industry is dependent on the gas north of Tobago.
“We are not talking purely about hydrocarbons for a Tobago economy, we are talking about the production and export of the capital services on the back of tourism, diversifying tourism properly the way the nation has never bothered to.”
He said Tobago could be like the Cayman islands, which James argued earns US $2 billion from financial services and has a per-capita GDP of US$80,000 as opposed to US$4,000 for the average Tobagonian. He said Cayman gets 550,000 stay-over tourists per annum and 1.5 million cruise ship visitors.
“The main prize is that we can develop exportable education, exportable health care, exportable creative industry and sports for that matter if we take them seriously,” James told the Business Guardian in an interview last Monday.
He insisted that Tobago can become a significant player in the national community and will allow the national economy to transform.
But former Finance Minister Selby Wilson insisted that Tobago must account for the substantial funds it has been given over the years and questioned the call for greater autonomy.
He said going forward Trinidad must also benefit from its union with Tobago.
Wilson said, “It must be a union which benefits both countries. It can’t be a situation where Tobago demands things and gets it and have no accountability to Trinidad. Tobago has an economic contribution to make to country of Trinidad and Tobago, they just have to manage their opportunities more effectively.”
He continued: “One really has to ask what is there to show for the funds given to Tobago over the years? Have they really demonstrated a capacity to utilise the funds in a meaningful way to encourage growth and development? One has to look more carefully at Tobago and find out how are they being managed? Is the THA doing the best they can do? Are they being progressive enough in the management of whatever funds they get? Or whether they are just milking it for all they can get?”
But James is calling for more money to be spent on Tobago, not less. He said while the dispute resolution formula allows the government to allocate expenditure based on population size what should happen is a consideration of geographic space and on that basis 32 per cent of the country’s capital budget should be spend on developing Tobago, even after it gets internal self government.
He said it should be seen as an investment in an under developed resource called the Tobago economy.
Asked why should the people of Mayaro or La Brea or Point Fortin invest their tax dollars on Tobago when their area is under-developed Dr James said that’s an issue for the people in those areas who have failed to mobilise and fight for things like Tobagonians have done and are doing.
“The democracy in the country needs to be sought out. We have a messy executive dominated democratic structure which blocks communities from playing any significant role in driving the way development allocations are made in the country.
“That’s your problem in Trinidad, we don’t want to continue that kind of design here in Tobago. You have to fight to build, with the racial structure you have in Trinidad you have a problem to do it, but you need to change the governance model in Trinidad to allow a representative, a set of representatives from across Trinidad to dominate the Cabinet,” James said.
He added: “We want autonomy because under your control of the government in Trinidad we will never get it. You don’t want no democracy in Trinidad. We want democracy to reign here, to put an end to Executive Council victimisation of Tobagonians and allow for a flourishing of representative democracy on the island and if Trinidadians are stuck with their particular mode of authoritarian government down there, that’s up to you.”
Both James and Wilson agree that the THA cannot continue to employ almost 70 per cent of the population.
Wilson said: “They have to increase their productivity, they have to increase their innovativeness and that is so whether they go it alone or whether they have independence or autonomy. I think right now they have a fair degree of autonomy and they are making heavy weather of getting more and more autonomy and one has to ask to do what with.
“The best autonomy they can get is to generate their own income. If they depend on Trinidad to pass them development dollars and recurrent revenue dollars and they want autonomy, they are not going to have it. Because there will come a point in time when Trinidad will say we can’t give you all we can only give you is some of it. They are shouting for things, and to me they don’t know what they really shouting at.
“They have to be innovative and it cant be that they want this autonomy for autonomy sake to say they are on an equal footing with Trinidad. This is nonsense.”
For James the present operation of the THA is nothing short of a scandal. “The THA employs 68 per cent of the employees of Tobago, that’s a scandalous thing, it shouldn’t be anymore than 14/15 per cent. That’s a measure of low productivity all across the Tobago landscape and its disgusting.”