The Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Amendment Bill will be proclaimed on Monday, signalling the start of the process for fresh THA elections. Upon proclamation, the bill becomes an Act of Parliament.
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley made the announcement at yesterday’s post-Cabinet news conference, held in Tobago. The THA has been deadlocked at 6-6 since the January election. The THA Amendment bill had been passed as a legal solution for breaking this deadlock by providing for an odd number—15 seats (instead of the current 12 seats)—in the new Assembly that would come into existence following a fresh election.
However, the bill which had been passed in the Parliament had not been proclaimed because Parliament—through a Joint Select Committee—had before it a legislative proposal to grant Tobago self-government (in the form of the Constitution Tobago Self Government Bill), and this legislative proposal involved significant constitutional changes which would have required fresh elections. However, this bill is now stuck at the House of Representatives because it requires a three-fourths majority, and the Opposition had indicated it would not give its support. The Government has, therefore, reverted to the THA Amendment Act to solve Tobago’s election impasse.
The THA Bill, once proclaimed, will require the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) to get to work on the redefinition of the boundaries in Tobago to reflect the 15-seat configuration of the THA. The EBC would prepare a report for the Minister of Local Government, which would in turn be laid and debated in the Parliament.
Fixing a date
The Prime Minister yesterday could not say when the election will be held, but added that much depended on how quickly the EBC would complete its report.
“There has been a request (from the Cabinet to the President) for a proclamation. So, come Monday, that (THA) Amendment (bill) will become law. The EBC begins producing a report for the creation of 15 seats for submission to the relevant minister. The report of the EBC must be completed within 90 days of the proclamation. But it is the EBC that will decide how much time it needs to produce that report, whether it is one month, one week, two months, but they have a limit of 90 days. However, you must bear in mind that the EBC has just done work on Tobago in January, and should be well positioned with the updated situation on the electorate in Tobago,” he said.
Rowley said provision is made in the act for the Chief Secretary to fix a date for elections. The THA Act states: “Where the Assembly remains dissolved after a primary election and no Assembly is constituted within 14 days of such primary election, the Chief Secretary, after consultation with the President and Prime Minister, shall fix a date of a fresh primary election, which date shall not be earlier than the expiration of two months after the coming into force of an Order made under Section 4 of the EBC (Local Government and THA) Act, nor later that the expiration of three months after the coming into force of that Order”.
‘We will do it with dispatch’
Rowley added: “The only unknown part of this equation is how long the EBC will take to do the report, and the EBC has 90 days to do the report. So if the EBC takes the whole 90 days, we are now in mid-July, so mid-October the EBC will report. And if the Parliament then proceeds to debate it (the EBC report) urgently, that will take us towards the end of the year. The Parliament will have to decide when it debates that (EBC) report... As head of the Government, (I can say that) you are right to expect that we will do it with dispatch,” he said.
The Prime Minister also could not say whether Tobago would ever get the Constitution Amendment (Tobago Self Government) bill passed. “I took steps in the Parliament to keep the Joint Select Committee’s work alive for a while. The Parliament went on recess after that debate and that Committee’s work would remain there until it dies when the Parliament is prorogued,” he said.
He said the Government believed “with all the work done, all the points of view considered and all the time spent on the bill, that what was before the people of Tobago (in the form of that bill) is a giant step forward for amendments to the Constitution to afford opportunities for Tobago to manage its affairs in a dramatically different way and to take responsibility for this island. But it may take some time for the people of Tobago to appreciate that and to accept it.
“And it doesn’t end there, it will also require others in the nation to agree to those significant (constitutional) changes. So we have made some progress, but not enough to prevent us from having to use the amendment (Tobago House of Assembly Amendment bill) that I just outlined... That would allow the people of Tobago to deal with the issue (deadlock) that arose in January as a result of the election outcome, and that would settle a number of things there.”