The Prime Minister yesterday rubbished the idea that the decision to have 15 seats in the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) was arbitrary and designed to give the People’s National Movement (PNM) a political advantage in the next THA election.
Piloting the Tobago House of Assembly (Amendment) Bill 2021, he said 15 was the number suggested in the Constitution (Tobago Self-Government) (Amendment) Bill that is currently before a Joint Select Committee, and the figure (of 15) originated in the draft bill done by stakeholders in Tobago which was transmitted to Trinidad for the Parliament’s consideration.
“To say that we are allowing people to vote (in fresh elections) is to allow dictatorship? Madam Speaker, is the word ‘hogwash’ parliamentary? I will not use the word, I want to stay with what the Archbishop asked us to do, which is to use kind words to our colleagues. You (the Opposition) are saying that if people are allowed to vote, it is the road to dictatorship,” the Prime Minister said.
Saying there was nothing wrong in returning to the polls early, he said the UNC “once again, trying to confuse the population”.
The Prime Minister said the legislation was not giving anyone who does not qualify to vote the right to do so in the next THA election.
“We are not allowing anybody to vote in two seats and it is the same people who voted in the 12 seats who will vote in the 15 seats. So what is this perceived advantage of the PNM? Any perception of the power of that vote lies in the hands of the voter,” he said.
“So all of the gobbledygook arguments coming from self-appointed senior counsel is only to confuse the country. There is nothing to it. And all those perceptions brought by our colleagues are simply unnecessary and unhelpful. It is easy to make accusations, but it must make sense.
“None of the objections made here today changes the fact that we have in Tobago 12 assemblymen who by law are the only people who can (elect a presiding officer) and who have demonstrated that they are unable to do this, and the law is they must keep on trying and trying and trying until the end of the term, which is four years from now,” the Prime Minister thundered.
Rowley said had the assemblymen been able to solve the crisis, the Parliament would not be here. “Madam Speaker, it has been said that doing the same thing over and over and getting the same result is just a form of madness. I do not want us to be seen as behaving in a mad way,” he said.
He said changing the seat to an uneven number was “common sense” in ensuring the same deadlock does not continue, even after going back to the polls.
“Because it is very likely, as a betting man, that the same 6/6 (tie) will come up again,” he said.
PM: No coin tossing
The Prime Minister dismissed suggestions from Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar that there should be a “tossing of a coin and leaving it up to Almighty God” the selection of the presiding officer.
“Are these people serious? We are talking about putting an end to a discomforting situation,” he said.
The tossing of the coin or drawing of lots is provided for in the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives in breaking a deadlock.
But the Prime Minister said this could not be applied in the Tobago situation to break the deadlock.
Rowley said the Opposition Leader’s argument that the THA could follow this practice (of the coin toss) ignored the fundamental distinctions between the role and function of the two officers in the decision as to who governs Tobago.
He said unlike the Speaker of the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament who had no role in the composition of the Chamber, the presiding officer of the THA, in the event of a deadlock, has the power in law to select by the exercise of a casting vote to elect someone to become chief secretary.
“The minute you select the presiding officer by pulling straws, you immediately give that person the power to determine the composition of the assembly,” he said.
The Prime Minister noted a pre-action protocol letter was given to the THA Clerk in an attempt to force her to draw lots.
He warned if the deadlock ends in the court, “the residual executive that is being accused of grabbing power will simply remain there until the dancing in the court is over. Going to court to argue about the democratic tenets being taken, we have no idea when that would end.”
The Prime Minister said he heard (former THA chairman) Hochoy Charles say that the Joint Select Committee to give Tobago self-government should first report rather than present a bill for fresh elections.
He said he had no power to force the committee to come back to the House expeditiously “next week” to conclude its work and to report on this matter.
He noted however it was mandated to finish its work by the end of May.
The Prime Minister said the law said the Clerk has to continue putting the question of presiding officer to a vote until the vote is carried in favour of one of the persons nominated for the position.
“Madam Speaker, it has been said that doing the same thing over and over and getting the same result is madness,” he said. “But in the meantime, we have a problem of not having in Tobago the workings of the assembly to supervise the work of the executive in Tobago, and that is what we are going to solve here now and solve it in the shortest possible order. As Prime Minister, I cannot sit on my hands,” while Tobago did not have a functioning assembly.
He said the suggestions being put forward for addressing the Tobago deadlock, outside of an amendment to the THA law, were not rooted in law.
Bill passed: New THA elections
After a heated debate, the bill was last afternoon passed 21 for, 18 against, paving the process to commence for a new THA election.
The Elections and Boundaries Commission now has the task of redrawing the boundaries in Tobago from 12 electoral districts to 15.
The EBC is then required to present a report with the new boundaries, and the Chief Secretary then has a minimum of two months and a maximum of 90 days to hold the election.
The Prime Minister explained that to change the number of electoral districts in Tobago from an even number to an odd number, consequential amendments to the EBC also had to be done.
The EBC is required by law to put a report in the Parliament two years after any election. However, by virtue of the amendments which were passed yesterday, instructions by law were created so the EBC can immediately begin the task of redrawing the boundaries in Tobago to reflect 15 electoral districts and prepare a report.
The EBC would then present a report for adoption with these 15 districts, and on its adoption, the chief secretary in Tobago will call the election within the time-frame provided.
“The law will limit the period of the transition,” he said, adding that the current Chief Secretary, Deputy Chief Secretary and secretaries remain in office until the new chief secretary is sworn in (after the election).