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Self-governance timing

GEORGE ALLEYNE Wednesday, December 26 2012

The statement by the Prime Minister, Kamla Persad-Bisessar, last Wednesday (December 22) that she had given instructions to the Attorney General, Anand Ramlogan, that she would like to see the draft bill on self Government for Tobago laid in Parliament prior to January 21, the date set for the Tobago House of Assembly elections, is of major import.

Speculation apart, will the planned draft bill for self-governance for Tobago have the potential to invest the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) with parallel power which can challenge the authority of Parliament?

Or has the People’s Partnership Administration structured the bill in such a way that the sovereignty of Parliament over Tobago remains?

Hopefully, the bill will not lead to the eventual break-up of the twin-island State. Anything which could lead to such a break-up, intentionally or otherwise, would run counter to the thinking of regional integration, which has been a guiding factor in Caribbean affairs since the establishment of a wider Caribbean Free Trade Association (Carifta) in 1968 and later that of the Caribbean Community of Nations (Caricom).

Because Trinidad and Tobago is a part of the Commonwealth of Nations, this following on the achievement of Independence from the United Kingdom on August 31, 1962, it may be pertinent to refer to the Scotland Act 1998, which while it has bestowed increased powers on a Scottish Parliament “does not affect the power of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to make laws for Scotland”.

In the same way that there is a Minister for Tobago Affairs in the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament, there is a relevant Minister in Scotland, whose official classification is that of Secretary of State, and not unlike the Minister for Tobago Affairs is a member of Cabinet. Nevertheless, unlike the Minister for Tobago Affairs, the Secretary of State for Scotland has several junior ministers.

There is a Scottish Office with departments with responsibility for Agriculture, the Arts, Criminal Justice, Education, the Environment, Fire Service, Forestry, Health, Housing, Industrial Development, Local Government, Police, Prisons, Roads, Rural and Urban Development, Sports, Tourism, Town and Country Planning and Transport, among others. Although the Tobago House of Assembly already has control of several of the areas listed above, does the proposed bill plan on going as far as the Scotland Act 1998 has done?

Does the bill, for example, provide for Tobago a planned greater expenditure per resident in successive Budgets than applies to Trinidad residents as is done with respect to Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom under the devolution of authority there? Even though Tobago has a great deal of catching up to do with Trinidad, will a People’s Partnership Government or indeed any government be prepared to go this far?

Meanwhile, it is difficult to quantify Tobago’s contribution to the revenue of the twin-island State. A great deal of Port revenue which Tobago would have earned, for example, had the island been a separate state, is earned instead by Trinidad ports, what with freighters calling at Port-of- Spain or Point Lisas to offload cargo which would then be trans-shipped to Scarborough, Tobago. The collection of taxes by a centralised authority is yet another example of not being able to pinpoint accurately, revenue which an independent Tobago would have earned. This column wishes to make it clear that it is not advocating the splitting of Trinidad and Tobago. This column accepts that it would be realistic to expect that Parliament would retain sovereignty over Tobago.

The distinguished British constitutional expert, A Dicey, noted in “Law of the Constitution”, that Parliament had “the right to make or unmake any law whatever; and further, that no person or body is recognised by the law of England as having a right to override or set aside the legislation of Parliament”. This would mean that Tobago, even if it so wished, could not, unilaterally, end its association with Trinidad.

But even as this point is made is there the distinct possibility that the bill for self-governance for Tobago may have been designed as a positive plus for Government and, consequently, the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) in the run-up to the Tobago House of Assembly elections?

This column had spoken earlier of regional integration, which has long been accepted as the way forward for the several island states which today comprise the Caribbean Community of Nations.

The Common External Tariff, under which regional goods can be exported by a member of the community to another member or other members and attract duty 15 percent lower than foreign exports is a plus for Caricom States as this encourages regional trade. It is a benefit which cannot be ignored when dealing with integration. But I have strayed.

A question which arises following on the Prime Minister’s announcement of the laying of the draft bill on self-governance for Tobago is this, has the People’s Partnership Government placed a tacit brake on having the widest possible discussions on constitutional reform for Tobago?

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