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Equality for Tobago and Trinidad

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Last Wednesday and Thursday, the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (Salises) of The University of the West Indies (UWI) held two events in Tobago to launch its Outreach Programme.

The centrepiece of those events was the Constitution (Amendment) (Tobago Self-Government) Bill 2018.

Highlights of those discussions included the issue of whether T&T should consider the idea of becoming a federal state because the issue of internal self-government for Tobago will still leave Trinidad as the dominant partner in the union despite the proposal for there to be “equality of status” between “the Island of Trinidad” and “the Island of Tobago.” When read alongside section 13 of the bill which seeks to amend the powers of the Presidency in section 80(1) of the Constitution by replacing the existing provisions by proposing that the President shall act in accordance with the advice of “(a) the Cabinet or a Minister acting under the general authority of the Cabinet, in relation to matters under the Government of Trinidad and in relation to Tobago in matters under the Fourth Schedule…”

Nowhere in the bill is “the Government of Trinidad” defined, while the “Tobago Island Government” is clearly defined in section 6 of the bill. However, provision is being made for the President to exercise powers in respect of an entity called “the Government of Trinidad.” Subsection (b) then goes on to specify the manner in which the President shall act on the advice of “the Tobago Executive Council” separate and apart from the Cabinet.

This issue has also raised the question of why the jurisdiction of the Tobago Island Government is defined and there is no definition for the jurisdictional boundaries of “the Government of Trinidad.” The jurisdictional limits for Tobago statutes are defined in section 18 of the bill as follows:

“A Tobago Statute shall 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.”

With Tobago being specified to enjoy “equality of status” with Trinidad, there is a debate about why is there no definition of the equivalent jurisdictional boundary for “the Government of Trinidad” stated in the bill.

It is difficult to corral Tobago in the way defined without corralling Trinidad in a similar way, otherwise, the principle of “equality” will be difficult to enforce as Tobago will remain inferior to Trinidad.

Perhaps, where the issue of the continued inferior status of “the Tobago Island Government” is confirmed lies in section 18 of the bill that proposes in a new constitutional section 141 AD (3) (a) where provision is being made for a Fiscal Review Commission which will be empowered to “determine and recommend to Parliament the sums required to be appropriated to Tobago in each financial year.”

This particular section clearly does not confer on the Tobago Legislature any power to appropriate funds for Tobago and leaves intact the arrangement that Tobago will still have to depend on the national Parliament for its budget.

This Fiscal Review Commission will consist of (i) a Chairman appointed by the President in her discretion after consultation with the Chief Secretary and the Prime Minister, (ii) two members appointed by the Tobago Executive Council, and (iii) two members appointed by the Cabinet.

In the absence of any definition of “the Government of Trinidad” which is mentioned in section 13 of the bill, there is only a curtailment for Tobago. If the principle of “equality” is to be meaningful, there must be a similar “Government of Trinidad” defined in the bill with the same limitations as the “Tobago Island Government.”

Perhaps, the only way that such constitutional equality can be established will be to change T&T from being a unitary state and convert it into a federal state. In that way, the state of Tobago can be “equal” to the state of Trinidad which could have similar institutions as are being contemplated for Tobago and above the two “equal” states will be the Federal Government of T&T, much like California (very large) and Vermont (very small) being equal states of the union in the USA and the Federal Government being located in Washington, DC. This bill will offer that opportunity if adequately amended.


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