VOTE FOR ME
By Andre Bagoo in Tobago Friday, January 11 2013
ALL THREE candidates for Chief Secretary in the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) election last night made impassioned pleas to Tobago to choose them for the post, during the first ever major pre-election debate of its kind.
Participating in the historic debate were: Hochoy Charles, political leader of the party known as the Platform for Truth (TPT); Ashworth Jack, political leader of the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) and Orville London, the incumbent Chief Secretary and leader of the Tobago Council of the People’s National Movement (PNM).
At the end of the televised debate the candidates were asked to sum up, in 30-seconds, why Tobagonians should vote for them.
Charles said, “I want to take the opportunity to remind the Tobago electorate that this election is about you: empowering yourself so that you can deal with the many issues that we have discussed here tonight. You cannot do that if you allow others outside of Tobago to have your powers.”
London said, “Tobagonians, you heard us here and you have a choice. The choice is between a party with a track record of service and delivery to the people: a party that has a plan. I know that Tobagonians are intelligent, sensitive people and I know that they will make the right choice on January 21.”
Jack said, “We have spent about an hour and a half debating issues that affect Tobago. We have seen what has happened to Tobago in the last 16 years. The only person in this room who cannot be blamed for this is me. My friends have all ruled before. There is only one choice.”
The responses summed up much of what had come before.
The near 90-minute debate took place within the sedate confines of the air-conditioned ballroom of the Magdalena Grand Beach Resort, Lowlands, Tobago.
Mere hours before, Jack was in front of a boisterous outdoor crowd at Mt Grace, northern Scarborough, speaking at a loud, open-air political meeting, as was London at Mason Hall and Moriah, amid party flag-bearers waving wildly and persons in party t-shirts blowing noisy horns, and DJs playing loud, booming music.
The debate proceedings were chaired by Dr Ronald Ramkissoon, chief economist of Republic Bank. There were two questioners: Hayden Blades, the president of Business Insight Limited and Victor Hart, the former chairman of Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute. The questions were created solely by the independent questioners. Before the broadcast, candidates drew ballots for the order they delivered their opening statements and answered questions. There were three main sub-topics: revenue generation; social sector development and Tobago House of Assembly (THA) reform. There were three breaks in the 90-minute programme. Candidates were mostly allowed to speak in two-minute blocks.
There were minor hitches: the debate started five minutes late; Charles accused Jack of violating an unwritten rule banning notes being brought into the debate (Jack later said he was making jottings under the debate headings during debate and referring to these); and there were some problems with the audio. However all of the participants: Jack, London and Charles described the event as a success. While political debate in the last few weeks has been dominated by bickering and allegations and counter allegations, last night campaign issues took centre-stage instead of political platform picong.
Some of the issues discussed included: the Tobago Bill 2013; agriculture; stimulating the economy; and the question of race.
On the issue of PNM candidate Hilton Sandy’s controversial remarks about a “Calcutta ship” sailing to Tobago, Jack said, “I think it is unfortunate the issue of race can enter this election or any election at all.”
In his response Charles said, “The only race that I know is the human race.”
London once again defended the PNM leadership’s handling of the fallout over Sandy.
“The PNM has a proud track record. An individual would have made a statement, it was wrong it was not condoned and that is the situation.”
There were memorable moments, such as when London and Charles sparred over who should take credit for the Cove Industrial Park.
“Mr London’s position is not different from ours because most of what he had mentioned was done from the time of my administration as Chief Secretary,” Charles said. London and Jack sparred over how to increase Tobago’s tax revenues.
“Mr Jack has succeeded in totally confusing me,” London said at one point.
Jack said he would deal with inflation by stimulating the agriculture sector but seeing more fruit production, including of chenettes. He called for a cull of agoutis and the Cocrico, while Charles called for the death sentence for those who steal from the Treasury. London insisted on a 200-mile marker for Tobago’s maritime boundary.
“This is the first ever electoral leaders’ debate to be hosted by the Commission and the first ever in Tobago and we are proud of this achievement,” said Andrew Sabga, chairman of the Trinidad and Tobago Debates Commission, the body which put on the unprecedented television debate. “Having electoral debates is an adjustment to our political culture.”
That Tobago would be the site of the first ever pre-election debate is not surprising. The island has a history of blazing a trail in the political sphere ahead of its so-called bigger sister Trinidad. For instance, Tobago had a democratically-elected legislative chamber, the Legislative Council, a full 160 years before Trinidad did.
Said Sabga, “Tonight must also be recognised as an accomplishment by Tobago and in particular the political leaders who chose to participate in this debate. Their decision to be here has strengthened the democratic process for Tobagonians.”
London arrived at the venue, with its sprawling acreage of carefully manicured grounds and columns of palm and coconut trees, at 6.38pm. By 6.55 pm Charles had arrived. Jack cancelled two political rallies the TOP had planned to hold yesterday evening at Plymouth and Golden Lane in order to allow for focus on the debate. TOP gatherers however were due to assemble at Tamarind Square, Scarborough, to view the debate on big-screens.
The exercise of the debate itself was carefully choreographed and the environment was tightly controlled since all candidates had expressed concerns over the debate’s format – it was broadcast live on national television and radio stations. The media were invited to the event but told at the last minute that they were not allowed unto the set to witness the leaders debating. Members of the media were asked to watch the debate at an adjoining media centre, some yards away from the ballroom on the compound of the hotel then allowed into the room at the end of the debate. There was, however, a small select audience on the set, including of members of the TTDC and the Chamber of Commerce.
There was much anticipation for the debate – which was on the tongues of many going about the business on Thursday afternoon in downtown Scarborough – with some curious at the prospect of political leaders sparring on issues, much in the manner of the US presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney who had done the same a few months earlier.
But what was not immediately apparent was what impact the unprecedented debate would have on voter choices. After the debate, London said he would wait and see before committing to another debate.
London said, “The members of the public will have to determine whether the objectives of this was achieved.”
Charles said he would commit to another debate. “I have been trying to have a debate for years. I was so happy when they brought it on,” he said.
Jack said, “I want to commend the other two candidates for participating in this debate. I think all in all it was a good event.”
There had previously been unsuccessful attempts to hold a similar debate before the 2010 General Election where all the candidates were from Trinidad. There was one previous debate, but for lower-tier local government posts on July 22, 2010. The debate idea was largely the brain-child of Ian Collier, a past-president of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce.
Collier last night said, “I am very encouraged by this. this is a very good start and I think everybody is a winner, certainly the voting public.”