Dr Winford James
The Government is proceeding with its intent to reform local government and, as I reported in my previous column, has amended the Municipal Corporations Act, Chap 25:04 via the Miscellaneous Provisions (Local Government Reform) Act, 2022, which has been both assented to and proclaimed by President Weekes. In critical measure, the new act mimics the THA Act and, if the intention is to autonomize local government for effective governance of the corporations by collaboration between the new Executive Councils and the people through the rule of law, it will fail just as governance by the Tobago House of Assembly has failed.
Yes, the various THA Acts are a prescription for administrative and economic failure, as history shows us.
For 42 years now, they have kept Tobago subordinate to, and dependent on, Trinidad. They have required the THA every fiscal year to go cap in hand to the national Minister of Finance– that is to say, the national Government–for expenditure sums to fund the salaries of most workers in Tobago and for development sums that are far less than what the national Government spends in Tobago. They have permitted the perennial donoring of sums to Tobago on a formula elevated into law some 30 years but whose lowest rate they keep using for their high-handed neocolonial calculations–a formula that has never been reviewed, far less revised. They have not been able to prevent the national Government from taking Tobago’s maritime wealth and giving back to us crumbs.
They have spawned a state of affairs where public servants in Trinidad, often low-ranking ones, are in charge of, or carry out, functions that should be under the purview of the THA. They have coerced the entrenchment of a small mendicant economy and driven Tobagonian children out of Tobago annually for better occupational and business opportunities.
Among their worst consequences has been a certain automaticity of national Government policy being taken as Tobago Government policy–especially when the Trinidad Government turns a blind eye to THA ‘encroachment’, okays a THA action or intervention by word of mouth, or enters into a memorandum of understanding. There’s no practice in the Tobago Government, or any law, that requires the making of policy either by formal consultation of the Executive Council with the people or by the non-Executive arm of the Assembly having oversight of Executive decision-making.
Similarly, there is nothing in the new local government law that forces formal consultation between the Executive Councils and the people or the non-Executive arm on matters such as the Corporation budget and investments by the Council. There is no formal mechanism in the law. So Council plans will be effected apart from the people except perhaps through informal consultation.
The Corporations will therefore have the same problems as the THA in matters such as the annual budget, areas of responsibility, and policymaking. They will submit their budget to the Finance Minister and come up against Government cuts in line with Government priorities and allocation formulae. They will find that what they think are areas within their jurisdiction are taken up by the Government. And they will find that they will have to follow Government policy where disagreements arise.
It is clear that the new legislation was not put together with any overarching intent to empower citizens resident in the Corporations and enable their practice of democracy in pursuit of their development goals. Absent such empowerment, the Corporations will only deliver a modicum of progress by pure luck and chance.
So where will their autonomy come from if these matters are not specified in the law and are not in our practice of government?
The Corporations might well tell us that they are not after full autonomy as Tobago is, and that they are content with the changes now enshrined in law–like administrative Divisions for different (sets of) responsibilities, the Executive Council, and the Audit Committee. But the trouble is, we don’t know what they want.
What is it that they want?
A major perspective on what Tobago wants is a federal government spanning two self-governing states–Tobago and Trinidad. Another is one nation-state with two subordinate provinces on equal administrative footing derived from a Senate where Tobago has equal representation with Trinidad.
What do the Corporations want?