2199125

The constitutional dilemma that has been testing this country’s best legal and political minds since Monday puts focus back on the relationship between Trinidad and Tobago. 

Neither Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley nor President Paula-Mae Weekes has any power to intervene but there could be a role for Parliament to tackle the thorny issues that led to current Tobago House of Assembly (THA) impasse. 

As was stated in this space yesterday, consideration of the Constitution (Amendment) (Tobago Self-Government) Bill, which has been before a Joint Select Committee (JSC) since 2018, may have to be given higher priority.

The bill is the most recent stage of the decades-long effort to achieve a decentralised system of government on the island. Demands for internal self-government for Tobago go back to 1977 and were spearheaded by the late Arthur NR Robinson, then the political leader of the Democratic Action Congress (DAC) and MP for Tobago East. 

The result of that effort was a draft bill, developed in 1979, for the establishment of a Tobago Island Council to formulate and implement a policy for the island on economic planning and finance in general. Out of that came the Tobago House of Assembly Act of 1980. 

This fell short of the devolution of power sought by Robinson and other Tobago political leaders, as did a subsequent amendment.

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, himself a son of Tobago, insisted yesterday that the 2018 Tobago Self-Government Bill has not lapsed. Its life has been extended to May 2021 and the work of the JSC is “preserved and going on.” That is good news.

The current proposal is for an arrangement along the lines of a constitutionally decentralised union with a protected sub-national unit of government for Tobago which has functional autonomy. 

The right of the people of Tobago to determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development will be recognised and a new constitutional provision would provide for the equal status of the two islands. This is modeled somewhat along the lines of the relationship between the UK and Scotland. 

Amendments will be required to several provisions of the Constitution so the bill, when it eventually goes before the House of Representatives and then the Senate, will require special majorities from both Houses of Parliament for passage. 

T&T cannot afford any more of the slow and painful progress toward what Tobagonians have been crying out over the past 44 years. There is no reason why this process should take so long.

During the tenure of Orville London, who served four consecutive terms as THA Chief Secretary from 2001 to 2017, Tobago self-government was kept firmly on the front burner. The bill now before the JSC is the result of those efforts. 

Dr Rowley, who is the only Tobago-born prime minister of this country since Mr Robinson, is now under increased pressure and must deliver on the promise to give “highest priority” to this issue in the current legislative term. 

The political consequences could be dire if there are any more delays in giving Tobago what it wants.