Senior Counsel Christo Gift
Camille McEachnie

Tobagonian lawyer Christo Gift believes the refusal of successive Peoples National Movement (PNM) governments to grant Tobago greater self-government over the past 40 years is “deliberate.”

The quest for the island’s change in governing status began when ANR Robinson took a motion to Parliament in 1977.

Commenting on the issue days after Finance Minister Colm Imbert said Government will give “highest priority” to the issue in the 2021 legislative term, Gift remains unconvinced.

The Constitution (Amendment) Tobago Self-Government Bill(2018), which is before a Joint Select Committee led by Minister Camille Robinson -Regis, lapsed in July during the last parliamentary term.

SC Gift, who was part of the consultations on the draft Self-Government Bill during the Orville London era, said the PNM’s handling of the issue historically, shows its importance to them.

“It’s so important to them, or so they say, that they allowed it to lapse . . . (that) tells me something of how they treated with the matter.”

He said when the talk of self-governance first arose, it was seen as akin to independence, but that has changed. The momentum for the island’s change in governance continues because Tobagonians have to travel to Trinidad to access important services. The feeling is at its most basic level, self-governance means having important, basic services based in Tobago, he said.

“When considerations for things in Tobago come up in Trinidad, people living in Trinidad, especially the governments, see it fit for Tobagonians to visit Trinidad. They see the linkage as Tobagonians taking a trip via boat or air, to access the services,” Gift said.

However, he is concerned about the island’s preparation for the change in governing status.

“How do we ready ourselves for the responsibilities of greater governance? The bill would give us greater law-making powers and the idea that you can tax locally. How do we do it?”

Gift said compared with what prevails under Act #40 of 1996, the proposed greater self-government is different.

He explained: “The idea that we have a (governing) structure already and all you do is increase its authority, does not wash with me.”

It’s one thing to have assemblymen carry on debates in the plenary sittings that have “little impact” on Tobago’s annual allocation from Central Government or life in Tobago but “tt’s another thing when you come to find that they have the legislative authority to influence what you can and cannot do or the extent to which you cannot do it,” Gift said.

What Imbert said

In his Budget presentation last Monday, Finance Minister Colm Imbert gave the following update: “Madam Speaker before I end my discourse on Tobago, I wish to give the people of Tobago an update and the assurance from this Administration that the Self Government Bill which was before a Joint Select Committee prior to the dissolution of Parliament in July, will be accorded the highest priority in this new legislative term.

“It is our sincere hope that we would get the necessary bipartisan support of the opposition as we seek passage of this critical piece of legislation for Tobago and Trinidad and Tobago in order to deepen the democratic process and to provide greater autonomy to the people of Tobago.

Quest for self-government

1977: ANR Robinson took the self-government motion to Parliament

1978: Joint Select Committee (JSC) of Parliament established to make recommendations on the motion. Kamaluddin Mohammed read the JSC report in Parliament. It was called the Seemungal draft as Lionel A. Seemungal S.C. did the draft Bill.

1980: Tobago gets its first taste of internal self-government through Act #37 of 1980.

1996: Act #40 of 1996 replaced the former act.

2005: In April Ashworth Jack, then the THA Minority Leader, took new motion to the plenary sitting.

2007: Chief Secretary Orville London appointed a committee comprised of Dr Eastlyn McKenzie, Dr John Prince, Dr Rita Pemberton and Carlos Dillon to seek public opinion to form a consensus on draft legislation.

2008: John Prince Committee submitted the committee’s report.

2012: Chief Secretary London sent a Bill to the Cabinet then controlled by the People’s Partnership.

2013: The Tobago Constitutional Amendment Bill was taken to Parliament by the People’s Partnership. The Chief Secretary started holding meetings and formed the Tobago Forum of Political Parties.

2016: The final draft of the Bill was agreed to by THA legislature in October. The Chief Secretary presented the Bill to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.

2018: The Bill was laid in Parliament in March. Camille Robinson- Regis was appointed to head a Joint Select Committee of Parliament on the Bill

2020: The Bill lapsed in Parliament in July.