Never a dull moment, some people say.
Well, it seems that even applies to the branded serenity of Tobago’s governance, particularly since the elections to the PNM’s Tobago Council and particularly that of its political leader.
The defeat of the incumbent political leader of the party council and coincidentally chief secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), created a conundrum for the higher-ups of the party.
Should a chief secretary, chosen by the electors of Tobago, remain in that position although he is removed as the island’s political leader by the party members?
The situation was compounded by the fact that the new leader was not even part of the THA and consequently could not replace the defeated leader in his other capacity as chief secretary, not being an assemblyman.
The easy solution would have been to allow the defeated leader to complete his term as chief secretary and the next THA elections due in a matter of months.
The eventual party formula? The defeated leader was made to resign as chief secretary and the new leader appointed a councillor in the THA, and, some other assemblyman be made new chief secretary.
The difficulty was, how was this party decision to solve a party problem to be implemented in an official representative body of the people governed not by the party constitution, but by the THA Act.
Installing the new leader as a councillor (one being removed to allow that) and a secretary on the executive council was easily done, both positions being appointed positions.
Replacing a resigned chief secretary proved not so simple and has become the source of disquiet that involves matters arising from the provisions of the THA Act which do not easily fit into the internal party “solution” to its internal issues.
Importantly, Part III of the Act, recognises that the chief secretary can be removed from office by a no-confidence resolution of the assemblymen (s.35). The optics of that route would have been politically untidy for the party. So, the resignation was the preferred route.
On April 30, the date of his resignation, the post of chief secretary became vacant, but he remained an assemblyman, a situation not fully contemplated by the makers of the Act which at s.36 ceasing to be an assemblyman renders his office vacant.
In such a case, a by-election to replace the defeated leader as an assemblyman would be the next step. But, the optics and risks of that option also did not find favour with the party hierarchy as a resolution of the party conundrum.
From May 1, the difficulties of the chosen party manoeuvre began to be obvious. The new leader declared that the resigned chief secretary automatically ceased to be a secretary (and member of the executive council). This misinterpretation of the Act immediately incurred the displeasure of Tobagonians, regardless of party affiliation.
The mechanics of imposing an internal party decision on an elected governance body became more entangled. The very process of electing a replacement chief secretary was questioned. Subsequently, the legitimacy of the swearing-in process and consequent status of all secretaries raised new questions and challenges, even threats of legal action (since abandoned for other forms of action).
The minority in the assembly is challenging the legitimacy of the replacement process and whether the whole party manoeuvre undermines the representative status of the THA itself and democratic principles.
A former chief secretary is arguing that upon the swearing-in of the new chief secretary by the presiding officer, the tenure of all secretaries immediately ended until new or renewed appointments by the new chief secretary. This would render any decisions/actions taken by any secretary between the election of the chief secretary (May 6) and installation of his new appointees null and void since they would not have been properly in office.
If (as some suggest) the chief secretary was only properly sworn in by the President (May 12), the question as to whether secretaries properly held office would only be affected in terms of the interim period.
All this disquiet on the serene isle arose from internal party politics being imposed on the elected representative body. The Minority Leader has properly identified this unhealthy development for the democracy and governance of Tobago.
Internal party elections and affairs must never dictate the workings of governance institutions elected by the people.
The line between the party’s affairs and the people’s affairs has been perilously blurred by the underlying notions of party politics trumping representative institution.