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Rhonda Phillips

Many Tobagonians are uneasy with the Government’s move to create three additional electoral districts to end the 6-6 impasse in the Tobago House of Assembly (THA). While some People’s National Movement loyalists endorse the move, others, in addition to many Tobagonians of different political stripes, believe that the island is “too small” to be further subdivided.

Further, there is a strengthening belief that both the Tobago Self-Government Bill 2020 and Tobago Island Government Bill 2021 are now “dead”, and deep apprehension that the Government is pushing ahead with them regardless. The bills are intended to allow the island to make its own laws and have direct access to the President for proclamation of those laws. They require a three-fifths majority for passage.

Of particular concern is what is perceived as a lack of transparency and accountability in THA spending by the holdover Executive Council.

In that context, many have been calling for the PNM and the Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP) to find a way to work together.

On July 26, Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley submitted a formal request for President Paula-Mae Weekes to proclaim the Tobago House of Assembly Amendment Act, which would mandate the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) to prepare a report creating 15 electoral districts in Tobago. The island, therefore, awaits the EBC’s report for new elections to be triggered.

The boundaries for the current 12 districts were developed according to Section 4 of the EBC (Local Government) Act 27 of 2008, which states that the number of electors in any district may be varied “provided that in no case…the number of electors in any one electoral district of an electoral area (shall) exceed or be less than the number of electors in any other electoral district of that electoral area by more than twenty-five per cent.”

As of January 2021, based on an EBC report, the island’s total voter population was 51,062, with the largest district being Black Rock/Whim/Spring Garden with a voter population of 4,602 and the smallest being Parlatuvier/Lanse Fourmi/Speyside with 3,772.

Whim resident Rhonda Phillips

Guardian Media spoke with Whim resident Rhonda Phillips who applauded the proposal to expand to 15 as a “step forward from the stalemate through the creation of three additional seats.”

She said, “It has been truly unfair to Tobagonians, we supported 15 seats in several consultations. The PNM continues to be blamed for taking control of the operations of the Executive Council even though it is within the law and all their efforts were publicly shot down by Assemblyman Watson Duke saying negotiations are off. How can we move forward, if not the 15 seats?”

Phillips, who said the “PDP has blocked progress by rejecting the Tobago Self Governance Bills,” supports the bills.

“As a Tobagonian, I support the bills as the positive outweigh the negative. This is a step towards development and it truly increases interaction with Tobagonians in decision making. We cannot get everything overnight, but we must start somewhere to meet somewhere.”

She said the Executive Council “stepped up, doubled their portfolios during a stalemate and a pandemic and continued operating Tobago, assisting and providing for the people.” She commended the Government’s efforts, especially the Prime Minister.

Bethesda resident Cidney Grant

Opinions at the neighbouring district Plymouth/Golden Lane with a voter population of 4,012 were a bit different. The district is one of the four seats which changed hands from the PNM to the PDP in the January 2021 THA elections. The seat is now held by the PDP’s Zorisha Hackett.

Bethesda resident Cidney Grant said he was not in favour of the three additional seats

“We are in a recession, things are hard for the country right now, won’t three additional seats put a strain on the treasury? We have to find money to pay so many other people and they don’t work for small money–I really don’t mind one additional seat to break the tie or even better yet, the two parties should work together.”

Grant said he does not support the Tobago bills because they did not come from Tobago.

“My understanding is that for a bill to change any legislature in Tobago it must first be debated in the Tobago House of Assembly–that did not happen. For a bill to go to Parliament it has to be taken by a Member of Parliament for Tobago East or West and it was taken by the Minister Camille Robinson-Regis.”

He said matters related to Tobago should originate from Tobago and not a Joint Select Committee. Grant gave the holdover Executive Council “a minus-zero grade” based on the “failure of the healthcare system to effectively manage COVID on the island and people who truly need assistance are still without help.” He asked, “Where are the millions of taxpayers money going?”

Plymouth resident Melissa Williams

Another resident Melissa Williams held a more diplomatic perspective as she was “neither here nor there on the move to 15 seats.”

“It still leaves room for a tie at some point in the future and I get the sense that the election is going to happen very quickly, so it leaves people with very little time to get familiar with the specifics of the new boundaries and also get familiar with the people being put forward to represent them.”

As it relates to the two Tobago bills, Williams said she was in favour of any legislation that would benefit the island, however, she said consideration should have been left for additional growth. And the bills will allow Tobago to show they can manage additional responsibility.

“The only thing I would have done differently is to somehow include a measure that would allow the island to review and upgrade its status after a period of time. We don’t know how well we will be able to manage the additional responsibilities given under the new bills, so we can incrementally build on what we have and grow over time.”

Williams believes that there are a lot of things the THA could have done better especially in terms of “transparency”.

“Officials need to reach out to the people on the ground and hear their concerns and maybe communicate more so that there is a greater sense of participation and understanding.”

Parlatuvier resident Newton George

Checks were also made with residents further east in the Parlatuvier/Lanse Fourmi/Speyside electoral district, with a registered voter count of 3,772. This district is currently held by the PDP’s Farley Augustine who won the seat for a consecutive term in the 2021 THA elections.

Parlatuvier resident Newton George is not in favour of the move to subdivide Tobago into 15 electoral districts.

“The Tobago House of Assembly has been operating with 12 seats for so many years and this is the first time there was a 6-6 tie, why can’t we find a system for both parties to operate within the 6-6 tie? Tobago is too small for any more seats.”

George said Tobago’s districts are well divided with an average of 4,000 people in each district and he does not know how the EBC plans to restructure the districts. As it relates to the Tobago Autonomy bills, he believes that the majority of Tobagonians are unaware of the contents of the bills which “gives Tobago more authority on one hand and takes it back with the other through overriding powers.”

“Tobago should govern Tobago! Our President is more of a ceremonial President, yet the bill allows the President to be the deciding factor in Tobago’s affairs and I’m not in agreement with that.”

He accused the current Executive Council of being disingenuous in many instances as he said people have been employed by the Assembly after the last THA elections. He feels that greater efforts should have been made to work with the PDP.

He referred to the THA Budget process where he felt the PDP was “only invited to comment after the proposal was developed.” But said, “we need greater collaboration.”

George said Tobago needs “equality of status” with Trinidad and this is not being offered by bills currently before the committee stage of Parliament.

“There are 39 Members of Parliament in Trinidad and only two for Tobago and they represent a Trinidad interest. I believe we will have a greater say in the Senate and even that requires some adjustments to providing an equal number of seats”

Mason Hall resident LuSandra Roberts

In the Mason Hall/Providence/Moriah district–which has a voter count of 4,451–residents voted in favour of the PDP’s Ian Pollard in the last THA elections.

Even PNM party faithful LuSandra Roberts, who swears that “You could jump high, you could jump low, I will not be leaving my PNM,” was not in favour of 15 seats.

“It seems a bit much for a small place like Tobago and look now we see the goodly Dr Angus (Dr Denise Tsoiafatt Angus) with a new party so we could tie again, so I think 13 is a safer number, to get the island past the 6-6 tie.”

Roberts believes the Tobago Autonomy bills are “good for Tobago,” and accused many Tobagonians of having “short memories” because the PNM has done a lot for the country.

“I think Dr Rowley is an intelligent man and he did what he had to do to help this country get through COVID. I don’t think anybody else could have done better. Some people may not like it, but it was for the best.”

The THA, on the other hand, could have done many things differently, she felt. “I see they have so many buildings in town that the Assembly owns but they still renting, that money could have been used to help somebody somewhere.”

Buccoo resident Keigon Denoon

In the Buccoo/Mt Pleasant district, commonly known as a “PNM stronghold,” 4,564 people are eligible to vote. One of those people, Keigon Denoon supports the move to have 15 seats.

“That would mean smaller electoral districts and better representation for Tobagonians. And with the current impasse, I really don’t see any other way how it can be resolved in the shortest possible time.”

He said while the bills are “not perfect–it’s a step in the right direction.”

“We have to look at what those bills mean for the people of Tobago, with those bills came more authority to manage our own affairs, we have the ability to make laws and we will have gotten more allocation. It wasn’t perfect, but I believe half a loaf is better than none.”

Denoon applauded the Government’s stewardship in facing the challenges and managing during a pandemic. He said most people were able to get some level of assistance through hampers, grants and rental assistance. If you see a sense of dissatisfaction, he said, that can be attributed to the frustration brought on by restrictions.

Signal Hill resident Alvin Henry

At another PNM stronghold district, Lambeau/Signal Hill, held by Political Leader of the PNM Tobago Council Tracy Davidson-Celestine, one resident, who gave his name as Alvin Henry, said they should reconsider the decision to create 15 seats.

“They say the original Tobago bills say 15 seats, but if the aim is to get past the 6-6 tie why not reduce it to 11 or go to 13? Look Tsoiafatt (Dr Denise Tsoiafatt Angus) come there now, it could be a three-way tie with 5-5-5.”

Henry accused the PNM of “playing games with Tobagonians as they will never give Tobago more autonomy.”

“With the 15 seats, they will cut up the PNM areas to get two seats and to make up the three additional seats.”

He also accused the current Executive Council of “playing politics” with Tobago’s resources as a lot of people who get help don’t really need it.

“Real plenty hampers passing and plenty people who need help not getting real help. A hamper is for a week, and when it is done what, come back and beg again? People need help to get on their feet for themselves and their children–we creating a nation of beggars!”

PM Rowley: My navel string buried in Tobago

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley has said his navel string was buried in Tobago long before he ever dreamt of getting involved in national politics and that is not open to dispute or interpretation.

That was part of Rowley’s response regarding Guardian Media’s query on his view whether his popularity was waning in Tobago.

He was asked following PNM’s performance in the last Tobago House of Assembly elections, where the PNM lost four seats and tied with the PDP 6/6, plus following the response of Tobagonians to the two Tobago autonomy bills.

Rowley’s commented, “I last ran for elections (unsuccessfully) in Tobago in 1981. I have never run for office in the THA and I have no intention of doing so now. I will not be a candidate in the upcoming THA elections.

“I remain a Member of Parliament representing Diego Martin West therefore, I have no reason to poll my popularity in Tobago.

“Incidentally, I am in the soil of Tobago and like Trinidad, Tobago is in my blood and that is not a matter of popularity with anyone.”

Analysts speak

Political analyst Dr Bishnu Ragoonath on the same queries, said, “I can’t say the PNM is waning. The question is if the Tobago electorate has accepted the excuse given by the Government towards the delay in holding elections especially after the bill for that was passed in February and only proclaimed in July.

“That means the PNM didn’t intend to hold elections until the end of the year or January, so they will get an extra year and it’s how the electorate feels about them taking the year to run the THA without having a full majority.”

Political analyst Prof Hamid Ghany said one of the things PNM had to watch for is the fact that they declined the power-sharing agreement for THA, “So if there are any adverse consequences with the COVID-19 situation then the Executive Council running Tobago at the moment is the only one to take responsibility for this.

“What COVID-19 will look like by election time we can’t possibly speculate, but I think given the uncertainty of the autonomy bills, they cannot delay on the issue of elections, and they may well use the bills as part of their campaign. They’re entering uncharted territory with the polls so soon after the 6/6 tie. Also, the emergence of a third party by Denise Tsoiafatt Angus is an interesting development in the context of potential vote-splitting.’” (GA)