By ANDRE BAGOO Tuesday, January 8 2013
TOBAGO will be empowered to make its own laws and will have a body tantamount to its own Cabinet under proposed legislation, to amend the Constitution, unveiled by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar in Parliament yesterday.
The Prime Minister described the Constitution (Amendment) (Tobago) Bill 2013 — the first piece of legislation tabled in Parliament for the year — as “revolutionary” and stated it would take Tobago down “freedom road”.
“All in all, these proposals are groundbreaking and represent a quantum leap forward in addressing the relationship between Trinidad and Tobago,” she said. “After one hundred and twenty three years, the TOP and Peoples’ Partnership are placing Tobago on freedom road.”
The legislation proposes Tobago will have:
* Exclusive power to make its own laws;
* Its own Cabinet body, called the Executive Council;
* A Constitutionally-guaranteed slice of the nation’s Budget to the tune of 6.9 - eight percent; and
* MPs who will have a right of audience in Cabinet on all national decisions;
“The changes will confer greater power to the people of Tobago and your elected representatives; it will limit the powers of the Parliament and the Cabinet vis-à-vis Tobago,” Persad-Bissessar said. “Tobago’s freedom beckons. Self determination for Tobago speaks to the maturity of the democracy of Trinidad and Tobago.”
While there were expectations that the Tobago legislation would have an easy passage through the House of Representatives on the strength of Government’s two-thirds majority, the Prime Minister yesterday said the bill would require a much higher threshold: a three-fourths majority. As such, it will require Opposition support. As the path to implementation of the new law appeared to become rockier, she appealed to the Opposition to support the legislation. “I therefore wish to invite my friends on the other side to join with my Government in righting the wrongs of the past and bestow full autonomy and dignity to the people of Tobago,” she said.
“The hour is now, the chance is ours. This moment will be a landmark in the destiny of Tobago. If those with the power to make it happen recognise the proposed paradigm shift is not about one-upmanship, rather about doing what’s right and long overdue.
“I urge all members of this Honourable House to join us as we move with determination, purpose and vigour to remove the historical hurts that have been inflicted on the beautiful island of Tobago for over one hundred and twenty-three years,” she said. “Consensus and not division will heal those hurts.”
The Prime Minister said the new measures would go toward reversing a pattern of neglect of Tobago which she traced to the colonial-era decision of Britain to unify both islands which was effected in 1897.
“The marriage of Tobago to Trinidad did not lead to the creation of two equal partners with an appreciation for the unique and distinct aspirations, identity and dreams,” she said. “Indeed, the peaceful co-existence of our twin island Republic has been characterised by the constitutional subjugation and subservience of Tobago.”
“The political dominance of the PNM during 1956 to 1986 meant that it did not need the political support of Tobago to form a Government. The PNM gained an easy and comfortable political electoral majority in Trinidad. It was thus able to form the Government of Trinidad and Tobago in isolation and ignore the development of the people of Tobago.”
“Tobago has therefore traditionally been treated as an annex of Trinidad or a local government district. The current proposal, as outlined in the Green Paper, for the creation of a Tobago Legislature to enact laws that shall have effect in Tobago is a natural progression along the continuum of self-government that includes the reforms of 1980 and 1996.”
Persad-Bissessar explained how under the proposed law which is to be entrenched into the Constitution, Tobago would make its own laws.
“There would be a devolution of legislative powers, albeit limited to the matters specified, from this Parliament to the Tobago House of Assembly,” she said. “We propose that the Tobago House of Assembly should have power to make laws for Tobago and the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago should have power to make laws exclusively for Trinidad. To this end, the powers of the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago will henceforth be curtailed in relation to Tobago.”
“The Tobago House of Assembly will however be denied the power to make any laws that will infringe fundamental human rights and freedoms. Only the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago, after consultation with the Tobago House of Assembly and with the requisite special majority, will have the power so to do,” she added.
Of the Cabinet-style Executive Council, she said, “It is my Government’s intention to change the composition of the Executive Council by specifying that one of the Secretaries shall be an attorney, who shall be responsible for legal matters. The new arrangement will elevate the current status of the Executive Council to mirror that of the Cabinet in the Central Government as a consequence of the increased responsibilities being placed upon the Executive Council.”
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Under the Constitution, the Cabinet, at minimum, comprises the Prime Minister and Attorney General.
On borrowing power, the Prime Minister said, “Through its Secretary responsible for Finance, the THA will be granted a power to borrow up to 15 percent of its Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP) allocation to Tobago for each financial year. It is intended, however, that a limit on this borrowing power would be imposed.”
With the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) elections due January 21, the Prime Minister sought to allay fears that the legislation was being rushed, making clear that it will not be subject to a vote when it is debated on January 16. Instead, it will be subject to a motion to take it to a Parliament study committee, a review process which could considerably prolong the time-line of implementation.
Further, “consequential amendments” to the Tobago House of Assembly Act; the Interpretation Act and the Statutes Act will be required before full implementation, in addition to Presidential proclamation on a date to be fixed.