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Tobago autonomy

Sunday, April 1, 2018

A Bill “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” was laid for First Reading in the House of Representatives on March 9 instant and has been referred to a Joint Select Committee.

The bill requires a three-fourths majority in the House of Representatives and a two-thirds majority in the Senate to be enacted because it seeks to amend some of the most deeply entrenched constitutional provisions.

Today’s column will not attempt to do a complete review of the bill as it is such a far-reaching piece of legislation that it requires several articles to properly review its contents.

In terms of general commentary, it is apparent that the bill seeks to reproduce in Tobago the Service Commission concept from T&T’s Constitution in respect of appointments, promotions, transfers, and discipline of public officers employed by the Tobago House of Assembly.

There is no originality here as this is a modification to reflect the same Service Commission philosophy that already exists for T&T that will now be applied to Tobago alone.

As regards the legislature, the bill seeks to introduce a bicameral legislature for Tobago with the House of Assembly now being joined by a People’s House.

The arrangements for the House of Assembly appear to be relatively the same, except for an increase from 12 assemblymen to 15.

The introduction of the People’s House is where the legislature is made bicameral so that there are two chamb Tobago statutes that will have effect “in Tobago, Little Tobago, St Giles Island, Marble Island, Goat Island, Sisters Island and such area of the archipelagic waters of Trinidad and Tobago, including any islands, the seabed and the subsoil, that lies within eleven miles from the low watermark of Tobago.”

This jurisdictional boundary may become the subject of further discussion insofar as “the low watermark” is concerned in an era of climate change and rising sea levels.

Perhaps something more defined in terms of specific distance may be more appropriate.

The People’s House, nevertheless, is a very interesting proposal as it seeks to revive the old parish system that existed in Tobago in the colonial era alongside seeking to incorporate some of the thinking behind the composition of a part of the current Senate of T&T.

According to the bill, the People’s House will consist of:

“(a) one member elected from each of the seven parishes in Tobago; and

(b) one member elected to represent each of the six sectors specified in the Fifth Schedule in such manner as may be prescribed by Parliament.”

According to the Fifth Schedule, these six sectors to be represented are (i) The Commercial and Business sector, (ii) The Tourism sector, (iii) The Agricultural Sector, (iv) The Environmental sector, (v) The Services sector, (vi) The Legal Sector.

They are supposed to “be established and constituted by legally registered organisations” in these areas.

This will become one of the more controversial provisions in the bill as the issue of who is being excluded will arise. Based on the current difficulties being faced by Tobago on its seabridge, the exclusion of a shipping sector may come readily to mind.

The proposed People’s House has an elected element in it so that it is not a purely a nominated body.

Yet it is treated as having to defer to the House of Assembly in the same way that the Senate defers to the House of Representatives by not having a veto power, but only a delaying power over legislation.

The People’s House is not purely nominated because it has elected members chosen much like senators in the US Senate to represent clearly defined geographical regions.

It will have to be treated differently.


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