PORT-OF-SPAIN: Opposition parties contesting the January 21 Tobago House of Assembly (THA) election have accused the coalition People’s Partnership government of insulting the population by introducing legislation aimed at providing more autonomy for Tobago.
Former THA chief secretary, Hochoy Charles, who is leading the Platform of Truth into the THA elections, said the decision by the four-party coalition to introduce the legislation to Parliament on Monday during the height of an election campaign was wrong.
“You cannot carry a bill during the midst of an election in parliament to discuss Tobago’s future,” said Charles. “That is insulting to the people of Tobago and, in fact, we will not sit down here and allow that to happen.”
He warned he was prepared to take the matter elsewhere, including the international forum or court.
“You can’t do that; you are having an election. Let the election come and go and then we will sit down to talk,” said Charles.
The main opposition People’s National Movement (PNM), which is seeking to extend its 12-year hold on the THA, has also been critical of the move by the government, despite Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar telling legislators that the decision to table the legislation is in keeping with the promise made by her coalition that includes the Tobago Organization of the People (TOP) when it was elected in 2010 and was not intended as an inducement to Tobagonians when they vote on January 21.
On Monday, PNM and Opposition Leader, Dr. Keith Rowley, said although his party is fully supportive of more autonomy for Tobago, it will not be bullied into voting for the Tobago Bill unless the people are consulted.
The government has deferred debate on the legislation to January 16 and is promising to send the bill to a joint select committee of Parliament.
However, Rowley said the PNM does not fear Persad-Bissessar.
“We will not participate in any substandard approach to treating this because the outcome of this legislation will be influenced and impacted by its process. In so far as there is a requirement for the PNM votes to advance this, such votes will not be used to advance the UNC’s election campaign in Tobago. They could say what they want in Tobago, we believe that the people of Trinidad and Tobago are not stupid.
“We believe the people of Tobago will understand that the PNM is for 100 per cent of Tobago getting an improvement in its autonomous arrangements…but that support is not going to come in this form of bullying to pass possibly bad law in an uninformed environment where the outcome good as it may be will be tarnished and stained by the population thinking that we did not understand what the government had done,” said Rowley.
Rowley said the Tobago Bill is a “major position” as it seeks to amend the country’s Constitution to fundamentally alter the relationship between Trinidad and Tobago.
Persad-Bissessar told Parliament that after “extensive consultation, dialogue, preparation and revision of proposals” her administration is prepared to table the legislation that would provide Tobago with internal government.
She recalled the history of the two islands dating back to 1768 and the efforts since the two countries were merged in 1887 for Tobago to be granted such political status.
“The marriage of Tobago to Trinidad did not lead to the creation of two equal partners with an appreciation for the unique and distinct aspirations, identity and dreams,” said Persad-Bissesar. “Indeed, the peaceful co-existence of our twin island Republic has been characterized by the constitutional subjugation and subservience of Tobago.
“Tobago has therefore traditionally been treated as an annex of Trinidad or a local government district,” she said, adding that the current proposal, as outlined in the Green Paper, would allow for the creation of a Tobago Legislature to enact laws that shall have effect in Tobago “is a natural progression along the continuum of self-government”.
She described the proposed constitutional amendment as “revolutionary” and said it would amend a “number of very important sections in the Constitution” and would modify the jurisdiction and authority of the Parliament and the Executive.
However, Charles insisted that the government should have waited until after the THA elections to have the parliamentary debate.
“If they fail to deliver that power to us we are not going to sit down idly by,” said Charles. “We are taking it to the United Nations under Article 73 of the charter. Self-government was passed for Tobago since 1977. This is 35 years we have been waiting on it and we are not waiting any longer.”
Rowley said he does not believe the people of Tobago are aware of what is in the bill.
“If it is going to be enacted into law the least the government was required to do is to let this country know what is in this bill,” he said.