THE Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) must wait for the proclamation of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Amendment Bill 2021 as law, before it can begin any exercise to increase electoral districts to 15. The three additional seats is proposed by Government as necessary to facilitate a fresh THA election to break the six-six deadlock which occurred on January 25. The assembly currently has 12 electoral districts.
On Saturday, EBC corporate communications manager Bobbi Rogers said the commission cannot make any change just yet, although the bill was passed in the House of Representatives on Friday with a government majority vote of 21 to 18.
"We have to wait until, of course, the bill is debated in the Senate and there is proclamation and passage," Rogers told Sunday Newsday. "That is when we move into effect. There isn't anything that can be done before then."
Senior government officials on Saturday said the Senate is due to debate the bill on March 2, where it needs a simple majority for passage.
In the House on Friday, the Prime Minister said the legislation is proposing that the minimum period to call a new THA election will be two months.
Asked whether the EBC would be able to do the work required to create boundaries for three new districts in Tobago and submit a report to Parliament in a shortened period, as required by the bill, Rogers replied, "We're no stranger to operating in limited time-frames."
She said the life span of an election cycle is 35 days and "sometimes we have just 35 days in which to get everything done." The EBC has the resources to undertake its remits as outlined in the Constitution, she said. "When we do indeed get the instructions from Parliament to forward, we will be ready to do the work that is necessary."
She recalled the THA report was laid in Parliament on September 8, 2020. "By legislation, there is a two-year period that we have to put forward that report," she said.
The amendment to the THA Act and to the EBC Bill, she said, "will give us the guidelines under which we have to operate."
Reiterating that passage and proclamation of the bill are critical before the EBC does its work, Rogers said, "Then there is the instructions given to the EBC and then the EBC mobilises."
A previous 2019 EBC report showed that Tobago East had 22,730 eligible voters while Tobago West had 27,197 for a total electorate of 49,927 voters.
Before the January 25 THA election, the EBC said 51,062 Tobagonians were eligible to vote. Of that number, 26,385 people voted and the voter turnout was 51.84 per cent. While they tied in terms of seats, the PNM won the popular vote with 13,288 votes to the PDP's 12,798 votes. The PNM and PDP have been unable since then to agree on the election of a presiding officer for the THA. The PDP on Friday sent a pre-action protocol letter to the clerk of the assembly calling for lots to be drawn to select a presiding officer.
On Saturday, Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar maintained the UNC's objection to the bill's passage and any new THA election being held. In a statement, she said, "We in the Opposition join our voices with strong notable voices from in and out of Tobago, to let the population understand that the current law provides a solution to the deadlock without having to go back to the polls. She listed "the PDP in Tobago, Tobago arm of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce as well as several independent writers" among those who support the UNC that "a new election is not the way to go." Persad-Bissessar reiterated the solution was to use the Standing Orders of the House to "prescribe the method for breaking a deadlock through the drawing of lots."
On Friday, Dr Rowley said the Opposition Leader knew there was no provision in the law that allowed for the drawing of lots to elect a presiding officer. He also said Persad-Bissessar showed in her earlier contribution she was confused about the role of the THA's presiding officer to that of the Speaker of the House.