T&T government, opposition clash over greater autonomy for Tobago

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad, Thursday January 17, 2013 – Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar Wednesday dismissed suggestions that her coalition People’s Partnership government was introducing legislation to grant greater autonomy to Tobago ahead of the January 21 election for control of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA).

But Opposition Leader Dr. Keith Rowley described the proposed amendment to the Trinidad and Tobago Constitution as a “fish with feathers” and reiterated that the main opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) would not support the initiative that needs a special majority in the Parliament to get the green light.

Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar told legislators that the legislation is in keeping with the policies outlined by her coalition government when it campaigned for the May 24, 2010 general election and was not intended to influence voters in the sister isle to support the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) a, coalition partner that is seeking to topple the PNM after 12 years in charge of the 12-member THA.

She said that the bill, which will be sent to a Joint Select Committee before the vote is taken, “will deliver to the people of Tobago what they have been denied for so long”.

She said after 123 years, it was time for Tobago to take its rightful place along Trinidad in the unitary state and that for the first time, Tobago would have a constitutional guarantee for its budgetary assistance from Central Government.

She praised former president and prime minister ANR Robinson, who in 1976 had introduced a bill to provide for self government for Tobago, which the then PNM government had interpreted to mean that the island wanted to secede.

She said she was not afraid to lead a government that was intent of ensuring “fair and equitable” distribution of the wealth of the oil-rich twin island republic, adding “the time has come to treat Tobago as a respective partner in the unitary state of Trinidad and Tobago”.

She said that PNM had over 30 years in power refused to take the steps to ensure the constitutional advancement of the sister isle and that the pleas of Tobagonians for self determination had “fallen on deaf ears for too long”.

The Prime Minister dismissed suggestions that not enough debate had taken place among the population of both islands regarding the initiative and insisted that the move was not designed to assist the TOP in the elections on Monday.

“It is not a matter for anyone to play games,” she said adding “the best time to deliver a promise is when the electorate is watching.

“After 123 years, if not now, when, the time is long past,” she said, insisting that Tobago should not be seen as an “annex or appendix to Tobago”.

She described the proposed constitutional amendment as “revolutionary” adding that it would amend a “number of very important sections in the Constitution” and would modify the jurisdiction and authority of two organs of the State, namely, the Parliament and the Executive.

Persad-Bissessar said that the legislation proposes an increase of the budgetary allocation to the THA and that the bill would also make provisions for the THA to have law-making powers in areas such as legal affairs, tertiary education, energy, Customs and Excise and public infrastructure.

She said the proposed legislation would also allow for the establishment of a Secretary for Legal Matters in the THA, additional borrowing power and the extension of the jurisdiction of the THA from six to 11 nautical miles from the baselines of Tobago.

But Rowley said the initiative was merely to garner support for the TOP in the election, adding that the records of the Parliament would show that  it was the PNM that had always advanced the constitutional development for Tobago.

He said Robinson had headed a government that enjoyed a 33-3 majority in the Parliament and had done nothing to ensure that Tobago achieved greater self determination during his 1986-2001 term in office.

“He forget Tobago, I doubt that that this is what the Prime Minister is saying,” Rowley noted, adding “you are doing this purely for election.

“What you are doing here is an election ploy,” he said, adding “if the egg is rotten the omelet is not going to be good”.

Rowley accused the government of seeking to hoodwink Tobagonians when it said it would allow the THA to pass legislation even though the proposals call for it to be sent to the Parliament here for approval.

He said also the government had sought to “amend” Section 75 of the Constitution that allows for the appointment of ministers for Trinidad and Tobago, adding “this government operates on the basis that it could fool people”.

He warned the nation and Tobagonians in particular in accepting “the fish with feathers” noting the new proposals would make “Tobago worse off than it is now”. (CMC) Click here to receive free news bulletins via email from Caribbean360. (View sample)