DR RITA PEMBERTON
Expectations that the passage of Act No 40 of 1996 would correct the shortcomings of Act 37 of 1980 and bring an end to the conflicts between the ruling parties in central government and the THA were put to rest even before the law was implemented. While the law did provide increased autonomy to the THA because it granted powers which the THA could not exercise previously, the trickle of autonomy was miniscule compared to what the THA members felt was needed in order to function effectively and attain the long sought after self- rule.
The way the legislation went through the required processes provides a premonition of the impending escalation of tensions. The law, which was piloted by then Minister Extraordinaire in the Central GovernmentANR Robinson, was rushed through parliament. It was passed in the House of Representatives on November 26, 1996, passed in the Senate two days later and the amendments proposed by the Senate were agreed by the House of Representatives on December 6, 1996.
Procedurally, there were problems because the law was assented on December 9, 1996, the very day of the THA election, and was proclaimed, and the THA inaugurated on December 11, 1996. This meant that the newly elected THA officials had to learn and implement the new law at the same time that they were required to provide services which were based on that law, to the expectant Tobago population. The larger problem was that there were no exiting structures on the island which could facilitate the execution of such services in the short term. These had to be established and be made immediately functional while the law was still in process of being properly understood.
The law established a completely new financial system on the island. Article 49, stated that "any company, financial institution or a person operating a business in Tobago shall pay in Tobago, and the THA was authorised to collect from all business people on the island all taxes, fees, duties, levies and other imposts in respect of its operations in Tobago.”
There was no tax-collecting mechanism in the public service in Tobago and no personnel with the organisational experience to handle this tax-collecting activity. The newly crafted THA had no staff for the exercise of these new responsibilities and the low-level appointments of public officers that were the norm in Tobago resulted in a shortage of individuals who were qualified for appointment to the newly-created positions.
Therefore, this provision stimulated an administrative challenge. Additionally, within three months of its first meeting, the THA was required to submit its draft estimates to the Cabinet. The estimates had to be prepared by the Secretaries, debated and approved by the Assembly before submission to the Cabinet. All subsequent draft estimates, both capital and recurrent, were to be submitted to the Cabinet before the end of the third quarter of each financial year. These along with Article 50, which detailed the arrangements for handling surplus funds; the power to borrow “by way of overdraft” or “by way of term loans for the purposes of capital investment,” and Article 51, under which the THA was required to make financial rules for the proper accounting of its finances, demanded the establishment of a new accounting and administrative system on the island.
Problems developed in 1998 when the financial year was changed from its alignment with the calendar year to cover the period from October 1 to September 30. This created an added burden on the THA to produce two budgets in one year, especially when the departments had not been set up and had to function along with the other challenges outlined above. To complicate matters even further, the THA received no financial allocation in the budget for the next year. The Chief Secretary wrote to the Prime Minister to draw his attention to this omission and request rectification. Having had no response from the Prime Minister, a case was made to the Dispute Resolution Commission (DRC) for its intervention. The response from the Head of the DRC Ombudsman Justice Edoo, indicated that the DRC could not act because there was no dispute identified. However, as a result of the flow of letters between the THA and central government, a dispute was later identified and the matter was again referred to the DRC. In 2000 the DRC ruled in favour of the THA. From this point onwards relations between the THA and the central government spiralled downwards.
Although it was expected to be a mechanism for correction of the shortcomings of its predecessor, Act 40 of 1996 maintained and supported central government’s control of the THA. The new act conferred neither legislative, judicial nor executive powers on the THA. Since Cabinet could override its decisions, in effect, the THA remained subject to the whims of central government which was a big disappointment for the ruling party in the THA. However, sight must not be lost of the revelations which resulted from the implementation of Act 40 1996. First of all, the need for education opportunities for education and training of workers in Tobago was made painfully visible. Secondly, the island’s development was stifled by a lack of opportunities for promotion in the public service and of facilities for manpower development on the island. Thirdly, the opposition of the central government to autonomy was made more evident. Rather that daunt the autonomy drive, supporters became more determined and assertive in face of this insistent opposition.