Trinidad and Tobago Parliament debating greater autonomy for Tobago

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The Trinidad and Tobago Parliament Monday began debating legislation aimed at improving the socio-economic and political relationships between the two islands, amid uncertainty as to whether two pieces of legislation will support opposition legislators.

Attorney General Faris Al Rawi told legislators that a special three-fourths majority or 31 legislators would approve of the legislation. However, the ruling People’s National Movement (PNM) had only 22 parliamentarians who would support the measure.

Chairman of the Joint Select Committee (JSC) on the Bill entitled “The Constitution (Amendment) (Tobago Self Government) Bill, 2020, Planning and Development Minister, Camille Robinson-Regis, who moved for the Report to be adopted, said, “this is indeed a historic day.”

She said that the Committee held 22vmeetings and two days of public consultations. However, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic required the Committee to adapt to the new norm with virtually all meetings and talks.

“Madam Speaker, I have heard it said by those opposite that the Bills proposed in this report are PNM Bills. Madam Speaker, although I ought not to be shocked. I am. Madam Speaker, quite uniquely, there was no government policy directing these Bills,” she said.

She insisted that the only policy before this Committee was the Bill itself which essentially emanated from Tobago, adding, “three of their members served on this Committee, Madam Speaker. I challenge anyone to stand here and refute that.

“Madam Speaker, I have heard that what Tobago submitted is significantly different from the Bill that was introduced in this House and from what is proposed in this report,” she said, adding, “Madam.

Speaker, you and the people of Tobago and Trinidad will understand why changes are proposed to what was submitted, and Madam Speaker, you too will reject as mischievous and dangerous the divisive comments from those opposite”.

“Madam Speaker, this is not a PNM report, and these are not PNM Bills. But the PNM is quite pleased with this product. We are pleased to present legislative proposals to this House that have stemmed from representations conveyed to us by many in Tobago. But, Madam Speaker, this is lawmaking.”

In her presentation, Robinson-Regis said the legislative proposal in this report would entrench into the

Constitution, Tobago’s right to self-determination and confirm Tobago’s unique identity.

“The proposals contained in your Committee’s recommendations to this House are just the foundation Madam Speaker. Within the margins of our revised Constitution, it will be for the people of Tobago to build and mold the institutions and systems that will be Tobago’s to govern. Trinidad and Tobago will only be stronger because of it.”

She said self-government is a system in which the citizens of a country or smaller political unit rule themselves and control their affairs. There are different models of self-government depending on the form of the Constitution of the relevant State.

“In our view, there is no uncertainty that Tobago, as a unique region within the unitary State of Trinidad and Tobago, is deserving of self-government,” Robinson-Regis said, adding that the issue is the constitutional form of the State within which self-government for Tobago is to be protected and the extent to which we, as a Committee, had the mandate to modify the Constitution and the form of the State.”

She said that the Bill referred to the Committee sought to amend the Constitution of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago to accord self-government to Tobago, to repeal the Tobago House of Assembly Act, Chap. 25:03 and for related matters.

She said the legislation the Bill referred to the Committee contained the following provisions, including the entrenchment within the Constitution of institutions of government for the island of Tobago and details related to their operations and procedures; the inclusion within the constitution of a definition for Tobago by reference to maritime boundaries; a Tobago Legislature, consisting of the President, an elected House of Assembly and a selected People’s House, with exclusive powers to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the island of Tobago, except for a limited number of matters listed in a schedule over which the national Legislature could continue to pass laws affecting Tobago;

In addition, the legislation also allows for a Tobago Executive Council (TEC), comprising a Chief Secretary and other Secretaries with exclusive responsibility for the general direction and control of a government for the Island of Tobago, except for a limited number of matters listed in the said schedule which would remain under the purview of the Trinidad and Tobago Government (TTG).

It will also allow for a minority leader to be appointed by the President as the person commanding the support of the most significant number of Assemblymen who do not support the Chief Secretary; a Tobago Island Civil Service and a Tobago Service Commission and the annual appropriation of not less than eight percent.

But as he presented a minority report, Opposition legislator, Rudranath Indarsingh, said that the legislation would have “serious consequence for not only the people of Tobago but for the people of Trinidad and Tobago and what we defined as the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

“It is our position, which I have articulated here today that these two bills – the Tobago Island Administration Bill and Tobago Self-Government Bill – do not reflect the broadest possible engagement of the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago,”

He said before any attempt is made to pass the legislation, which is critical to the concern of Tobago’s self-government, “proper consultation must be held across Tobago.

‘And in addition to that, the dreams of Tobagonians for self-government must not be continuously manipulated by the PNM (and) Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley.

Indarsingh said that the UNC, which controls 19 seats in the 41-member Parliament and whose support is needed to pass the bills, “feels it is a masquerade, or they are masquerading as champions for the cause of Tobago’s self-autonomy in pursuit of a selfish political agenda,”

He accused the government of wanting to do so “in a divide and rule’ environment, adding “the PNM has not been and will never be in pursuing the interest of Tobago’s self-government.”

But the Attorney General dismissed the opposition’s arguments, noting that Tobago has been a ward of Trinidad under British rule since 132 years ago. So the JSC went to work, producing “two pieces of law which are the subject of a report to this Parliament.

He said Indarsingh, in his contribution, made no reference to the two pieces of legislation and that there has not been any recommendation from the UNC “to the law which is being brought for consideration…

“We had two hours of we need more time and my simple submission today is 253 years of old talk must end,” he said, noting that the report before the Parliament proposes that Tobago’s access to autonomy “inside of what it has right now, the Tobago House of Assembly Act, which is anchored by a simple majority….”

But he said while the Act is within the Constitution, “we believe it is not good enough for Tobago” since it resides only in one Chapter.

“What the bills before us demonstrate is a radical deviation from what is not good enough. Therefore, we stand on the side of saying that the THA Act does not go as far as it ought to and it ought to be repealed and replaced, and we say that Tobago must be elevated into the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago”.

Al Rawi said that Tobago is not looking to secede nor develop a Federation, adding, “you have to preserve the unitary state of Trinidad and Tobago.

“And what is a unitary state? It is attached to your territorial sea chapter 151. It is attached to your archipelagic state, economic zone status, which is again part of the laws of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago,” he said, outlining reasons for preserving the economic zone.

“Let me put it squarely this way. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea recognizes that Trinidad and Tobarecognizesicle 47 (1) is an archipelagic state,” he said, adding that it means “we have been warned that Trinidad and Tobago need to ensure that it does not need a way its economic zone rights.”

The debate is expected to last two days.

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