Whatever the Constitution (Amendment) (Tobago Self-government) Bill, 2021 is intended to be, it is definitely NOT an autonomy bill, and I will show you why. This latest bill in the ongoing saga of the attempt to fix Tobago’s governance structure, while purporting to recognise ‘equality of status’ between Tobago and Trinidad ‘within the unitary State of Trinidad and Tobago’ and enable ‘the right of the people of Tobago to determine, in Tobago, their political, economic, social and cultural development’ falls far short of what is needed.
Which is disastrous on a number of grounds after some 137 years of union. I proceed on the assumption, as does the bill, that autonomy and self-government are terms speaking to the same state of affairs and the latter is realised when a territory (such as Tobago) governs itself and, therefore, is not under the control of a higher level of government.
One ground is that the bill places the governance arrangements in the Constitution of T&T—a mechanism that is not controlled by Tobago but, ultimately, by 39 Trinidadians in the House of Representatives and a large majority of Trinidadians in the Senate. If, after the passage of such a bill, Tobagonians should ever want to upgrade their governance to facilitate their freedom and development, they would have to go to Trinidad for permission to do so. That must be the antithesis of equal status and self-government and is accordingly quite intolerable.
A second ground is that the bill excludes Tobago’s maritime boundaries from the definition it provides for the island. The bill declares that “[f]or the purposes of sections 53, 75A and Chapter 11A, a reference to ‘Tobago’ means the Island of Tobago, Little Tobago, St Giles Island, Marble Island, Goat Island, Sisters Island and the internal and inland waters of Tobago.” It rejects the definition in the current THA Act (40 of 1996)—which is that Tobago’s maritime boundary is at six miles from the mainland baseline—and focuses superfluously on the internal waters. It disrespects the international definition, in these kinds of matters, of a median or equidistant line between the baselines of Tobago and Trinidad.
This is a loose state of affairs in which the proposed TIG (Tobago Island Government) is denied their fair and desired natural geographical jurisdiction over the island. If you have a property that includes offshore waters but you are denied ownership of the offshore waters, aren’t you being denied access to, and exploitation of, the wealth in those waters? Surely, the absence of Tobago’s natural maritime boundaries is either an unfortunate oversight or a deliberate barrier to Tobago’s right to a specific formula and a predictable arrangement for financing Tobago’s push for development within the context, and on the behalf, of the nation of Trinidad and Tobago.
A third ground is that the bill assigns the THA (Tobago House of Assembly) two prescribed schedules of responsibilities—a 4th Schedule of areas for law making and a 5th Schedule of areas for administration—while leaving all remaining areas of governance, including reserve responsibilities, to an entity called Trinidad and Tobago, which can only be Trinidad. This is the opposite of what is required. To be truly self-governing, Tobago must prescribe what it wants the Central Government to do to facilitate its development. And while the Central Government—as distinct from Trinidad—must have its own package of responsibilities, it makes good sense for Tobago to have the right of concurrence in respect of some of those responsibilities.
But on this matter, the framers of the bill faced a conundrum which they either could not, or were afraid to, resolve: how to set up self-government arrangements for one of the islands in the union without doing so for the other. So they copped out by allowing ‘Trinidad and Tobago’ to be ‘Trinidad’ by default and hoping we wouldn’t make a fuss about it.
On this matter of the Schedules, at least two further observations need to be made. One is that the principle used to differentiate between the 4th and 5th Schedules is opaque, if it exists at all. And a second is that the 5th Schedule has been reconstituted—some areas have been removed and/or adjusted, others have been included—without the matter being specifically drawn to our attention in the Explanatory Notes, making us suspect a certain sneakiness.
A fourth ground is that the bill compounds fundamental flaws in the current THA Act by i) providing for executive government under rules which allow the Premier to establish an Executive Council that is a majority of the THA; and ii) lacking provisions for representative government (eg, effective legislative oversight of all executive functions and adequate opportunities to petition the government to introduce laws and policies for facilitating successful collaboration in competition).
There’s much more to expose, but suffice it to say that, overall, the bill reflects little or no understanding that autonomy really resides in a Bill of Rights and that the prosecution of these rights should not be constrained by some higher body or level of government in the union.
(To be continued)