A new bill could increase Tobago's autonomy within the Trinidad and Tobago twin-island republic

 

Tobago was first grouped with Trinidad under British colonial rule in 1889. In 1962 the twin islands achieved independence and became a republic over a decade later in 1976. After independence, Tobago was considered an administrative and electoral region of the country, with administration being handled solely through the Ministry of Tobago Affairs. Greater demands for self-rule, however, led to the establishment of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) in 1980. Tasked with the administration of local affairs, the THA remains to this day the main institution in charge of Tobago’s affairs. While demands for greater autonomy have continued throughout the decades, the latest effort for constitutional reform has the potential to significantly expand Tobago’s autonomy within the republic.

Local Representation

Though it has limited legislative and executive powers, the THA is comprised of a legislative and an executive arm. The legislative arm encompasses the Assembly Legislature, composed of 12 elected members serving four-year terms. A presiding officer and a clerk of the assembly further support the legislative function. The executive arm consists of an Executive Council, led by a chief secretary. The council carries out the tasks of the assembly through its 10 divisions, each led by a secretary. The divisions have responsibilities over specific areas of local affairs, including agriculture, marine affairs, environment, tourism and transport, planning and development, infrastructure and public utilities, health and social services, finance and enterprise development, among others.

Orville London was chief secretary from 2001 to late 2016, when the assembly was dissolved in anticipation of new elections on January 23, 2017. Kelvin Charles, whose Tobago Council of the People’s National Movement (PNM) party won 10 out of 12 seats in the THA, became London’s successor. Nationally, the island is represented by two appointees: Shamfa Cudjoe, who serves as minister of tourism, and Ayanna Webster-Roy, who is minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Self-Government

With a population of 61,000, representing only 4.6% of T&T’s total population, Tobago has nonetheless consistently sought greater autonomy within the existing constitution of the twin-island republic. The latest campaign for self-government started in early 2013, after the PNM’s sweeping victory in that year’s elections, against the central government-sponsored Tobago Organisation of the People. The PNM gained all 12 seats in contention, effectively leaving the THA without a minority leader.

The Tobago-based PNM had long sought greater autonomy for the administration of local affairs, often suggesting that bureaucracy from national ministries and agencies had inhibited development of the island. After the election, a round of discussions between the THA and the Tobago Platform of Truth, as well as representatives from the Tobago-based PNM led to the establishment of the Forum of Political Parties. The latter went on to lead the autonomy campaign, holding extensive consultations with stakeholders in T&T before arriving at the draft bill. With the PNM, led by Tobago-born Keith Rowley, regaining power nationally in the 2015 general election, the stage was set for a national debate. Prime Minister Rowley said his government would set up a joint select committee comprising senators and members of the government and opposition to examine the bill before submitting it.

Draft Bill

The final draft bill was formally accepted by the THA on October 27, 2016 and is now being forwarded to Parliament for debate in 2017. London, then-chief secretary, told a THA plenary session that the bill represented “an important and critical juncture” on Tobago’s road towards self-government. If approved, the bill will significantly expand the island’s legislative and executive powers, with Tobago effectively dropping its current status as a ward within T&T.

Among the most significant changes the draft bill seeks is the establishment of an autonomous Tobago legislature, which “shall make laws for the peace, order and good government of Tobago.” According to the draft bill, the legislative body would consist of the House of Assembly and a new second house, with members to be determined by the THA. In addition, the draft bill proposes the establishment of an Executive Council with expanded powers, which “shall have the general direction and control of the Tobago Island Government and shall be collectively responsible therefore to the Tobago Legislature.” The central government would continue to have exclusive powers over, among other matters, immigration, foreign policy, national security, aviation and the judiciary. In order to obtain parliamentary approval, the draft bill will require a two-third majority, which the current PNM government does not have. The latter holds 23 seats in T&T’s Parliament.

Sustainability

While the draft bill received overall support from the THA, Gary Melville, Tobago’s former infrastructure and public utilities secretary, expressed concerns about a potential increase in administrative costs. “We have to be careful that the cost of governing Tobago is not too high. To have a People’s House as proposed in the bill would increase cost,” Melville stated. Local media also reported concerns regarding the appointment process of the proposed second house of the legislature, whose members would be selected by the ruling party within the THA.

Ensuring sustainable governance in Tobago is likely to remain a priority for T&T’s Parliament, while debating the draft bill in 2017. The island has enjoyed significant development in the past 15 years. According to Colm Imbert, finance minister, unemployment decreased from 13% in 2001 to 3% in 2016, while the proportion of the labour force with tertiary education reached 19%, up from 5% in 2001. Meanwhile, headline and food price inflation have declined to moderate levels, from double-digit levels a decade earlier.

Recent years have also shown a stable economic performance. According to the THA’s Division of Finance and Enterprise Development, Tobago’s real GDP increased by an average annual rate of 2.2% between 2013 and 2015, with the island’s GDP standing at approximately TT$1.93bn ($43.1m) in 2015, up from TT$1.65bn ($246.5m) the previous year. The services sector remains the backbone of Tobago’s economy, accounting for some 90% of GDP.

However, Tobago continues to face significant developmental challenges. Government spending remains the main growth driver and largest employer on the island, with government activity accounting for about 47% of the island’s GDP and some 55% of its labour force. Recent growth was spurred in large part by a 34% increase in government spending in the five years to 2016. For FY 2017 Tobago received a budget allocation of TT$2.35bn ($351.1m), representing 4.4% of the national budget, of which TT$2.05bn ($306.3m) has been earmarked for recurrent expenditure, TT$289m ($43.2m) for capital expenditure and TT$20m ($3m) for the Unemployment Relief Programme.

Economic Foundation

Despite its reliance on government spending, several areas of Tobago’s economy are showing promising growth, in particular finance, insurance, real estate and business services, all of which expanded by 10% in the five years to 2016, according to the Division of Finance and Enterprise Development. Moreover, Tobago has untapped potential in the agriculture, industry, education and health care sectors, which, if properly explored, could see the isle assume a larger role in T&T’s economy.

Key Sector

Tourism remains the strongest single economic activity on the island, representing some 12% of GDP. Rich and varied, Tobago’s tourism sector offers significant potential for growth. In addition to beautiful beaches, Tobago features tropical forests, a wide range of leisure activities and is home to a number of attractions including the Tobago Main Ridge Forest Reserve, a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage status and Pigeon Point Beach, which has been ranked among the world’s best beaches by international media.

Given its capacity to generate foreign currency, the development of the tourism sector in Tobago is a pillar of the national diversification strategy. In May 2016 a special committee headed by Prime Minister Rowley was created to lead Tobago’s tourism sector. Members of the committee include Cudjoe, tourism minister; Imbert, finance minister and Webster-Roy, minister of state in the Office of the Prime Minister, as well as representatives from the THA, among others.

A number of measures are also being undertaken in the FY 2017 to stimulate growth in the sector, including increasing marketing efforts, enhancing tourism offerings and expanding the island’s room stock. The latter is expected to increase by at least 1000 high-quality rooms in the next three years, according to the THA, with a highly anticipated Sandals Resorts International hotel set to account for at least two-thirds of the total. The start of work on a long-awaited new airport terminal at Crown Point and continued improvements to the existing terminal, as well as improvements to sea and air transport links between the twin-islands are also expected to significantly improve tourism prospects.

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Cover of The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2017

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