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Saturday 18 November 2017
Commentary

A triad of Tobago troubles

Part 1

Inadequate budgetary allocations are one thing. (And I shall say nothing this time about the THA’s scandalous incapacity — or unwillingness — to provide the Auditor-General with acceptable accounting for the taxpayers’ monies it has received. For how much longer is this to be allowed to continue?) But what about that old tale — I’m beginning to think it’s a fairytale — of internal self-government, which has been recounted to us so often over the decades? Let me just give some quotations. You be the judge.

“(T)he government will honour its pledge for constitutional reform leading to full internal self-government for Tobago. Most of the groundwork has already been laid, and a framework that will allow this period of consultation to culminate in real legislative action is now being worked on at the level of the offices of the Prime Minister and the Chief Secretary.” (Winston Dookeran, presenting the 2012 budget on October 10, 2011.)

“As we speak in Tobago about self-government, there is still some confusion in the nation as to exactly what Tobago is after. But after 45 years we should be able to answer that question … I am leading to the Parliament to ask the Parliament by way of joint select committee to very urgently receive Tobago’s request, and the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago engaged in national discourse, so that this matter could be resolved once and for all.” (Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, addressing the THA on October 26, 2015.)

“I would like to think that we are prepared (for internal self-government). I would have loved to think that. I do not think that we are as prepared as we should be, and I think we have a responsibility as leaders to participate in the preparation process …

“We have got to have plans. We have got to not only have plans, we have got to have projections that we are creditable to ensure that we can convince ourselves and convince the rest of the country that we can in fact contribute even more significantly to the national purse …

“As far as I am concerned, the hard part comes now, because as much as many of us in this room are energised and motivated, there is a certain degree of apathy in the Tobago population where this is concerned, and we have got to be able to engender that kind of excitement, that kind of energy, so that all of Tobago, or most of Tobago, understands what is important and why this is so critical going forward.” (Former THA chief secretary Orville London, addressing the THA on the Tobago Self-Government Bill, 2016, October 27, 2016.)

“Rowley also said that legal documentation on constitutional reform for Tobago is on its way to Cabinet … He said hopefully at the end of the year something will be concluded. ‘It will be in Parliament during the second quarter. We expect that the bill will be in the Parliament in whatever state it’s in, and then a parliamentary committee will be working on it.’” (Express, January 11.)

“Madam Speaker, I am delighted to report … that the draft legislation to grant self-government and a greater devolution of powers to Tobago is before Cabinet, and in the upcoming fiscal year we will table the legislation before Parliament.” (Colm Imbert, presenting the 2018 budget on October 2.)

What do you make of the above quotations? In particular, how do you interpret Orville London’s remarks?

A third Tobago concern is the THA’s ability to borrow. On October 2 Imbert announced that “we are presently in discussions with the THA with respect to giving approval to the Assembly to borrow money in 2018 to accelerate its development programme.”

Section 51 of the THA Act says in part that the (relevant) secretary “may, with the approval of the minister, borrow sums by way of term loans for the purposes of capital investment.” This has been the case since 1996, when the Act came into force. Yet I note that some people in Tobago, who I thought knew better, are exultant at Imbert’s statement, as if it marks a new and dramatic development in Tobago’s somewhat unsteady journey towards internal self-government.

And if Tobago is allowed to borrow, who guarantees the loan? What would the collateral be? Given the THA’s dismal accounting record, who would monitor the use of the funds borrowed?

Whither Tobago? We shall see. In the meantime, I have two comments for consideration.

First, there are many in Tobago itself who in principle strongly oppose self-government, and the accounting irresponsibility of the THA has only deepened their hostility in practice.

Second, self-government has to be viewed within the wider framework of Trinidad and Tobago. There are many in Trinidad who will say: “Why stop at internal self-government? Why not go for independence and leave us alone?”

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