?Ashworth Jack, political leader of the two-year-old Tobago Organisation of the People (TOP), has been thrust into the national political mainstream through an electoral alliance with United National Congress. Jack, Minority Leader in the Tobago House of Assembly, discussed election issues with the Sunday Guardian.
?Q: How prepared is TOP for the general election?
A: We are as prepared as any political party and better than most. We never stopped organising since the 2009 THA election, so we were not caught unawares.
Could you indicate your prospective candidates?
We have four nominees, and they will come down to two on Monday. For Tobago East, they are pathologist Dr Hughvon de Vignes and Dr Vanilla Alleyne-Toppin. The nominees for Tobago West are Dr Theodill McPherson and Dr Themnold Baker. We will decide on the candidates on Monday.
What does TOP offer differently from PNM?
Everything. We believe in a Tobago that can make decisions in Tobago for Tobago. We believe there must be honesty in government, in term limits for leaders, both the Prime Minister and THA Chief Secretary. We believe decisions should be made after consultations with the people. Decisions must not be forced down people's throats.
Are you fully pleased with the relationship with UNC?
We have been working for some time on relations with UNC and COP. We were talking with COP just as much as UNC. Both Winston Dookeran and Prakash Ramadhar have been speaking with us for quite a while. I have attended a number of foundation for good governance workshops and spoke at them. I have been working with other related organisations. We met last week with UNC, and I am happy at the commitments to good governance. I am seeing a genuine attempt to create change. We agreed that if we do not see eye to eye, we would talk and try to find a solution.
Have there been any negative responses to your accord?
Of course, we have had. Initially, some PNM supporters were saying we sold out Tobago to the Indians. I find that to be interesting. The PNM is talking about Vision 2020, about building a developed country, and they are trying to divide it by race and by region. But we will work with people of like mind to save the country from that kind of thing.
If there is electoral victory, is TOP likely to play a vital role in governance?
We will not have it any other way. If we are partners, we must respect that. It is not something the UNC has objected to, or the COP, for that matter.
What are the critical issues facing Tobago?
Constitutional reform is a major issue. We can't make decisions on matters affecting Tobago. There are 41 Members of Parliament and 31 senators, meaning that there are 72 members of both Houses. But there are no senators who, as of right, must be appointed from Tobago. Decisions that affect Tobagonians are being made by people who probably cannot find Tobago.
If the situation were reversed, would Trinidad be happy that of 72 members of both Houses of Parliament, only two must, of right, be from Trinidad?
We of Tobago aren't. We must be able to make more decisions about Tobago. Look at the situation with respect to Town and Country Planning Unit; to build a home, you must get approval from Port-of-Spain. Some people don't know where to find the office. Would Trinidad be happy with that? Surely not. The situation is the same with respect to land transactions. Pensions are calculated in Port-of-Spain. You have to go to Port-of-Spain to handle tax matters. There are other examples. Who could be comfortable with that?
Is the withdrawal of Rennie Dumas' PNM candidacy good or bad news for TOP?
It does not matter either way. What has been his level of representation? I don't know how much he has represented the people of Tobago East. I looked at his contributions in Parliament, and he has not represented the people effectively. He has not spoken well. There are a number of pieces of legislation he should have objected to, such as the Town and Country, Revenue Authority and others, that would affect Tobago in a negative way.
Do you call that representation?
Are you optimistic about the immediate future?
Very! From the founding convention of TOP on September 26, 2008, we have continued to build and develop, so that we got 48 per cent support in the THA election of January 19, 2009. We moved from one to four seats. We lost three seats by margins of 58, 78 and 195 votes. We have not stopped working. We will continue to build our organisation. We are confident of victory; very confident!
What are your own personal political ambitions?
To be the leader of TOP and to aspire to become Chief Secretary of Tobago House of Assembly. But I want to lead a strong organisation that would help to change the country. That's more important than any position I can hold. I believe in the ?principles of honesty and fair play. That's what I want. If out of that comes the position of Chief Secretary, then that's fine.
Would you be campaigning in Trinidad?
I was on the UNC platform at Marabella. It was wonderful. I may be there on other platforms. But I have a campaign to run and an election to win in Tobago.
What do you want to say to the Tobago electorate?
This is an election in which the electorate must be smart. They have to ask themselves whether they have been properly governed over the past two-and-a-half years. If not, why not? I appeal to the electorate to let good sense prevail. Their future is at stake.