In last week’s column, I synopsised that Prime Minister Rowley used his op-ed to give the nation an unhelpful two-pronged message on the results of the last THA elections and the subsequent collapse of the PDP in office. The PDP buried the PNM under an avalanche of 14 of the 15 seats but found themselves out of the THA, with 13 of their Assemblymen resigning from the party–that is to say, from Watson Duke himself–re-forming themselves into a group of ‘Independents’, and moving to form a new political party.
The first prong of the PM’s message was that the Independents had lost their mandate and must acquire a new one through fresh elections. And the second was that they must accept the limits of the law in the way they govern. But neither prong is developed to provide a helpful analysis of how fresh elections can fix the problem of a lost mandate or enlighten the public about the advantages to Tobago and the country at large of sticking to the limits of the current House of Assembly Act.
Dr Rowley was mired in a traditional perspective: you lose your mandate, go back to the polls (even if the act does not require you to), and the law must be obeyed because it is the law (even if it does not give you the freedom to operationalise your responsibilities under the Fifth Schedule).
There were no big ideas from his perspective–even though he had a big office to resource the op-ed. It was, as he declared at the outset of his first term in 2015: he wasn’t interested in changing the rules.
And yet, if only because there’s a large constituency in Tobago that insist otherwise, he must, as Prime Minister, argue the matter with the people. Needless to say, there are many electors in the 13 districts represented by the Independents who do not consider that a mandate is lost simply because representatives have lost their party; and, further, all 13 of the Independents seem to have an interpretation of the law that is different from Dr Rowley’s.
If Dr Rowley were really interested in better democratic governance of not only Tobago’s affairs but also the country’s, he would have situated his politically fair call for fresh THA elections on the need for governance reforms that would lead to real autonomy and not on the Chief Secretary’s opportunistic party-forming schedule. Simply installing a new government–any new government–to operate in the same legal framework would only harden our autocratic approaches to governance over the last 43 years of THA existence and 63 years of national government since Independence. It would only embolden the practice of dictatorship evident in the Cabinet and the Executive Council.
The Prime Minister should have been focused on what legislative changes are needed to usher in representative oversight and end dictatorial fiat. Currently, and in continuation of historical practice, the Assembly is almost completely an executive body. There’s no oversight because there aren’t enough elected representatives to provide it, there being fewer people outside the Executive than inside it.
And even if there were enough people outside the Executive to control the outcomes of any vote, these people would need law-making powers to force the Council to follow the instructions of the vote. Law-making powers are needed to create autonomy, but currently, the THA can only propose bills; it cannot make laws because that is a preserve of the national Government/Parliament.
It is clear that, in order to govern well, there must be oversight within the chamber of the actions of the Executive Council and the Assembly itself needs law-making powers.
Dr Rowley, as PM, should have engaged us on these matters, introduced the legislative changes, then do the political work to get Farley to call the elections.
Winford James is a retired UWI lecturer who has been analysing issues in education, language, development, and politics in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean on radio and TV since the 1970s. He also has written hundreds of columns for all the major newspapers in the country. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org