The Tobago Bill will give the sister isle a government system of its own says Attorney General Anand Ramlogan. Ramlogan made the disclosure while listing some of the major aspects of the bill, which Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar announced at a Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP) rally in Tobago last Sunday. The bill will be laid in Parliament on January 7, she said.
The bill, granting the self-government Tobago has been calling for for decades, will come mere days before the hotly contested Tobago House of Assembly (THA) elections on January 21. “Tobago has been treated as a legal annex or colony of Trinidad as opposed to a separate island in a twin-island republic,” the AG complained. “There will be the creation of a secretary of legal affairs that mirrors the mandatory constitutional requirement of an attorney general in the Cabinet,” the AG said.
“This would inject the necessary legal expertise into the deliberations and operations of the THA. “This was done so proper legal advice can be given to avoid any chief secretary secretly mortgaging the future of Tobago and Trinidad away. “The bill further proposes the introduction of an independent bench in the THA, which would inject a measure of non-partisan level-headedness and objectivity in debates and in the lawmaking process,” Ramlogan said.
“It is my hope that these independents would act as a constitutional audit and check and balance on the exercise of legislative and executive powers in Tobago.” He described the proposed increase in Tobago’s share of the national budget from four per cent to eight per cent as a financial revolution that would put the per-capita income of Tobagonians on par with the best in the world.
The historic increase in the budgetary allocation to Tobago, he said, has been a major recommendation of all various constitution-review committees over the years, but had been ignored by successive administrations. “Precious little was done in this regard by the PNM’s own representatives from Tobago when they were in government,” Ramlogan recalled.
He said the bill will also define the maritime boundaries of Tobago, a point Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Chief Secretary had a problem with. London said the AG’s measurements were different from those contained in another self-government bill, which was put together by the THA. The THA’s measurements, said London, would increase the island’s territory, giving it valuable sea space off the northeast coast, where oil exploration is done.
The AG said the definition of Tobago’s maritime boundary would give citizens a psychological sense of belonging and ownership without undermining the concept of the unitary structure. Ramlogan said the AG’s Office worked on the Tobago self-government bill for two years and held extensive nationwide consultations, both in Tobago and Trinidad.
“We distributed over 10,000 copies of the Green Paper and received written comments from people of all walks of life in both islands. We also utilised the Internet to get wider participation and attract the voices of the youth, in particular.” “I took the approach that this was not an issue simply for Tobago, but one that affected Trinidad, as well,” he said, responding to London’s charge that the Government’s Green Paper was not in sync with the wishes of the people of Tobago.
“I disagree with the PNM that this is simply a matter for Tobago,” Ramlogan said, noting that the THA’s consultations were confined to Tobago. He said a large number of Tobagonians lived in Trinidad and were quite happy to contribute to the process. Further, London did not have the moral authority or political credibility to criticise the PM or the Government on this matter, the AG said. He said London had been a Tobago MP for a number of years and never made the call for constitutional reform with any vigour while the PNM was in power.
“This is the first time in decades that the issue is being meaningfully addressed by any government.” He said he expected the PNM to oppose the bill in Parliament when debate begins on January 16. Commenting on the Tobago land bill, which will finally allow Tobagonians to obtain legal title to land they owned or occupied for generations, he said it was a significant piece of legislation that would enable citizens to access financing and stimulate upward mobility. The land bill would also have psychological and cultural benefits, Ramlogan said.