With no opposition in the Tobago House of Assembly, political analyst Dr Winford James says it is up to lobby groups to challenge the ruling People’s National Movement. James said the PNM’s 12-0 defeat over the People’s Partnership coalition member, the Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP), allows the administration to make decisions unopposed.
At present, there are no provisions under the Constitution for the formation of an opposition, and according to James, it is not good for the governance of the island. He said it was up to lobby groups to create an informal opposition. “From a legal point of view all is well in the THA, but where it is not good is in politics and governance of the island,” James said. James was speaking with the Sunday Guardian last week.
There have been calls by THA Chief Secretary Orville London and President Anthony Carmona for amendments to the THA Act to allow for the appointment of independent councillors, but nothing has been done to date. The President, under Section nine of the act can appoint three councillors under the advice of the chief secretary and one with the advice of the minority leader.
The THA states that councillors are nominated members in the assembly who were not assigned special responsibilities as they relate to the conduct of the business of the assembly. Currently, those positions are held by Secretary of Education, Youth Affairs and Sports Gary Melville, Secretary of Community Development & Culture Denise Tsoi-a-Fatt-Angus and deputy presiding officer Deon Isaac.
Because the PNM won all 12 seats, no minority leader and councillor was appointed. According to London, the last information he received on the matter was that it was sent to the Government’s Finance and General Purposes Committee. London said, “I would have written to the Prime Minister and the last thing she indicated was that it was before the Finance and General Purposes Committee. I have gotten nothing else from her since.”
As Tobagonians wait for changes to the Constitution, James said the critical concerns were:
• How can Tobagonians have a legal opposition?
• How can they get the THA to fulfil their given mandate?
• What are their legal powers?
James said, “The answer is simple; it is legally not possible unless they can form lobby groups. People have had this reaction to politics before, and after that they don’t know how to keep it alive. “There is political action to do so and an informal opposition can hold press conferences and publish its views on what is happening in Tobago.
“They can get on talk shows and discuss their opposition to what the PNM-led assembly is doing. If we are only concerned about the law, there is no legal way which we can have it, with the TOP losing all the seats that were available. “There are no formal lobby groups I can think of, but of course the civic groups can come together to create that political pressure.”
THA’s legislative draft
London said the THA has already formulated a draft which is to be presented to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. “The process for the review of the Tobago House of Assembly Act intermingles with the process for the review of the Constitution. I have nothing against that process; in fact we are supportive of the process for the review of the Constitution.
“But, as I would have said, it is betraying the predictable with the unthinkable with the way the review of the Tobago House of Assembly Act is taking place. It is a process that has been going on for the last five or six years. “We are very close to conclusion and I think it would be a betrayal of the people of Tobago if we allow it to be overtaken by the constitutional reform process.
“As necessary as it is, it is a process that we don’t know when it will conclude; this year, next year, the next ten years, nobody knows, because that is the nature the national constitution commission is exercising.” While London does not think the changes are taking too long, he hopes the review is completed soon.
“No one can predict how long it is going to take. There are so many issues, many of them contentious, many of them quite complex, and, therefore, it would be nice to think this is an exercise that will be completed very soon. “Whereas in the case of the Tobago House of Assembly Act, both Central Government and the Tobago House of Assembly have indicated their commitment to the process.Therefore, all we need to do is work out the details and that should not take a long time.”
Baker: London’s proposal insulting
Minister of Tobago Development Delmon Baker described London’s request for independent councillors as insulting. He proposed that the THA election should be decided by the plurality voting system to facilitate proportional representation in the assembly. “Some 2,000 people voted for the Tobago Organisation of the People and it would be insulting for the chief secretary to insist on having two independent people in the THA.
Baker suggested electoral reform for Tobago’s governance to implement a system of proportional representation in the THA. This would mean the percentage of votes a party received during an election would be proportional to the number of seats they occupy in the THA. He said the TOP remained committed and open to discussions on bringing internal self-governance to Tobago.
Consequences of amending THA Act
James said while amending the act could have consequences, the Government seemed uninterested in making the changes after the TOP’s defeat at the polls. He said it would be difficult to change one section in the act without affecting others. “You would recall that the Prime Minister announced during the last THA election that very soon Tobago would be having a number of things including a fixed rate of the budget and an expanded Tobago House of Assembly with more councillors.
“There was a promise made to expand the maritime boundary by some ten miles, but what she did not say was how it was going to be instituted. Was it going to be done by separate legislation? “I imagine it is possible to make certain interim changes in anticipation of a bigger change, but I don’t think the Government is motivated to do so.” Despite calls to amend the THA Act, James said independent councillors would have little impact on the assembly’s decision making.
“Even if they had one seat, they would have been ineffective in turning the (THA) Government away from certain actions they were displeased with. “There is a powerlessness of the oppositions in this country if you have a minority, and that is what is strangling this country. “Governments get everything, and that is why the call to do something legally has gone nowhere because it depends on those in power.
“The Opposition is treated as an annoying irrelevance and this is not flattering for a country that wants the world to take it seriously. It is a killer of people’s desire for change.”
Polls for politicians
James said the best way to keep politicians on their toes was to take regular polls. “The people’s response is so important after the votes. “How we will know is for polls to be taken regularly, and we need polling bodies to monitor what is happening with governments in our society. “Politicians respond to how they are being rated by the public. “Polls being done periodically only get people’s reactions to what the Government is doing at the time.”
Maukesh Basdeo: Form partnership to resolve issue
Political analyst Dr Maukesh Basdeo said changes to the act should be made to allow for transparency and accountability in the THA. He said it was the PNM which should raise the issue in Parliament and partner with the Government to address the monopoly in the THA. “Government can make amendments to the THA Act to have nominated members appointed by the President.
“Seeing there isn’t an opposition in the THA for accountability and transparency in the ruling party, it is wise to have some form of independent councillors in this current scenario to hold the current administration accountable. “Seeing that the THA is run by the PNM, I think they should raise the issue in Parliament and take the opportunity to actually speak with the President and Prime Minister on this matter and form a partnership to resolve this issue.
On January 23, London wrote to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar requesting changes to the THA Act to allow alternative voices in the assembly. The letter said the law should be amended so that the President could appoint two independent councillors at his own discretion.
London said, “Given the urgency created by the results of the election, for alternative voices in the assembly’s legislature, I recommend that the Government seek to have the Parliament approve a change to the current legislation to allow for the provision to be implemented.” In his inaugural speech, President Anthony Carmona said the landslide victory caused a dilemma as there was no official minority representation in the THA.
He said amending the act would allow him the power to appoint the councillors in the interest of democracy.