A group of four prominent Tobagonians is accusing the government of stalling on legislation that will give the island greater autonomy. And they are claiming this is being done against the wishes of the island’s population.
“In defiance of the wishes of the people of Tobago, the government has been dragging its feet on the Constitution (Amendment) (Tobago Self-Government) Bill, 2018,” the group comprising former diplomat Reginald Dumas; economist Vanus James; historian Mervyn O'Neil and agriculturist Reginald Phillips, says in a joint statement issued last Thursday. They add that the government promised action by the end of 2018 and did not deliver.
“It (government) also promised to bring a Joint Select Committee Report back to Parliament by May of 2019. It is now September, and nothing has been done,” the statement adds. The group also expressed surprise at recent remarks attributed to Minister Shamfa Cudjoe “to the effect that for the first time in (Tobago’s) history, the bill for internal self-government for Tobago is at the Parliament.”
“It was as if the motion on the same subject presented to the Parliament in January 1977 by the late ANR Robinson, and the subsequent consideration of the matter, including the preparation of a bill, never happened. Nor should it be forgotten that a bill on the same subject was laid in Parliament in January 2013. It subsequently lapsed,” the group adds.
The group says effective legislative oversight of the executive function in Tobago is urgently needed, citing as an example action by healthcare workers on the island calling for “someone, anyone to hear our pleas and cries” and address a rapidly deteriorating health situation in Tobago.
The group quotes the health workers as complaining about storing biohazard waste for months.
They claimed a litany of woes at the health service including shortage of food; gauze; diabetic medications and hypertensive medicine. The group quotes the healthcare workers as describing the ICU at the hospital as a “pitiful claim of an expanded ICU, a joke that URP built.”
The workers ask, according to the group, “Doesn’t anyone care about us?”
The correct answer the group says should be, “Yes, we care,” adding “the best way to ensure we all do care is to introduce effective legislative oversight of the Executive Council."
It said allegations like these should be investigated and legislated on by a body with independent powers, to get the facts and take appropriate remedial steps.
"An amendment of the Constitution is needed to give Tobago the right to set up a body with such powers.”
The foursome said an amendment is also needed to entrench the right of the people of Tobago directly to consult, and be meaningfully consulted by, their government on any matter. Then, they say, healthcare workers and every other stakeholder could have a direct say in the law-making and oversight process, and would not have to doubt if its government cares. They point out, however, the need for reform to provide effective oversight of the Executive Council and agencies like the TRHA is only one of many constitutional challenges Tobagonians must address urgently.
Confidence in the judiciary is also at stake, they claim adding that there is, for example, need for an amendment to enable the Tobago Island Government to take steps to prevent tampering with the independence and proper functioning of the judiciary, and protect Tobago’s interest in the fair and effective dispensation of justice in the country. They point to a recent judicial action, which many have interpreted as inspired by personal animus, which they say makes such an amendment crucial.
The group also points to what they describe as the major matter of Tobago’s fair access to development opportunity in the country. They point out that the data published by the THA in its official statements put Tobago at more than four times poorer than Trinidad, after nearly 60 years of supposedly swimming side-by-side in the blue Caribbean Sea, and they suggest that two amendments are needed urgently to remedy “that kind of gross inequality.”
The statement continues: “One must define the boundaries of Tobago (and Trinidad) in terms of the median line between the islands. The limit of eleven miles from the low water mark proposed in the Constitution Bill, 2018 is just as inconsistent with the proclaimed equality of status as is the current limit, on its face capriciously chosen, of six nautical miles in the THA Act (#40, 1996).”
The other amendment to go along with fair boundaries, the group says, must be a formula that provides a fair and equitable allocation of development opportunity to each island.
They say as matters now stand, each year the THA “engages in an undignified and shameful exercise of begging Trinidad for $2 billion of development funds, which it thinks are justly due."
According to the four, “Each year, the central government responds with about $300 million. Especially in the light of the Memorandum of Understanding apparently dealing with contiguous and international waters which was recently signed by the Governments of Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados, and which we assume the government will soon make public, a formula based on a proper definition of Tobago and on the clearly analysed developmental needs of the island would help Tobago obtain its fair share of the national pie.”