Towards a Tobago self-government? Constitutional reforms in Trinidad and Tobago

By Derek O’Brien and Matthew Gayle, 23 May 2018
Map of Trinidad and Tobago (photo credit: Nationalia)
Map of Trinidad and Tobago (photo credit: Nationalia)

In response to historical demands, the Trinidad and Tobago parliament is considering amendments to the Constitution to institutionalize Tobago’s self-government. While there is a level of support for the recognition of the equal status of the two islands, the proposed arrangement gives rise to some thorny constitutional questions. In addition, the slow pace of reform process combined with the popular preoccupation with pressing practical issues may ultimately derail the finalization of the process – write Derek O’Brien and Matthew Gayle.


Though relatively small, with a land mass of 116 square miles and a population of 60 000, the island of Tobago has been agitating for several decades for greater autonomy from its larger and wealthier sister island, Trinidad. Currently, a Joint Select Committee (JSC) composed of members of both houses of the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament (hereinafter ‘the national Parliament’) is reviewing a draft Bill - The Constitution (Amendment) (Tobago Self-Government) Bill 2018 (hereinafter ‘the 2018 Bill’) - which provides for a decentralized system of government for Trinidad and Tobago. The JSC is due to report back to the national Parliament by 31 July. Though the 2018 Bill is supported by the current Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Keith Rowley, himself a Tobagonian native, it will entail amendments to a number of the most entrenched provisions of the Constitution and will, therefore, need to be approved by three quarters of members of the House of Assembly of Trinidad and Tobago and two thirds of the Senate.

This piece briefly outlines the constitutional history of the two islands leading up to their enforced union at the end of the nineteenth century. This will help to provide the context out of which the demand for autonomy has emerged.  It then charts the rise of the movement for self-government in Tobago and the struggle to get the current proposals for reform before the national Parliament. This will be followed by a discussion of the key features of the 2018 Bill and the issues to be resolved by the JSC. The conclusion discusses the likelihood of the 2018 Bill receiving the support necessary to secure its passage through both Houses of the national Parliament.

History of union of Trinidad and Tobago

Though geographically proximate, the islands of Trinidad and Tobago have quite different constitutional histories. Tobago first came into the possession of the British in 1763. While not a settled colony, Tobago was governed under the Old Representative System that was usually reserved for such colonies. This meant that, in theory at least, it had a representative and democratically accountable legislature, even if it was representative only of the very small group of plantation and merchants (the plantocracy) who enjoyed the franchise.

There is a sense that Tobago had exchanged the neglect of British imperialism for ‘Trinidad imperialism’.

Tobago’s Assembly held its inaugural session in 1768, at which point Trinidad was still a Spanish colony. It would be a further 28 years before Trinidad finally came into British control, whereupon it was treated as a conquered colony and governed under a system of Crown Colony Rule. Though it had its own Legislative Council, which was introduced in 1832, it was a wholly unrepresentative and unelected body, being composed of an equal number of officials and nominated unofficial members (selected by the Governor). The final say on matters affecting the colony always lay with the Governor, who was appointed by the British and who was subject only to instructions from London.

Though originally the constitutionally superior island, the economic fortunes of Tobago’s plantocracy deteriorated rapidly because of emancipation in 1833. Shortly thereafter its constitutional status was also downgraded to that of Crown Colony when the plantocracy, fearing the specter of black majority rule if the Old Representative System remained in place, agreed in 1876 to its abolition and its replacement by Crown Colony rule. A decade later the Secretary of state announced plans to unite the two islands. Though the proposed union was unpopular on both islands, an 1888 Order-in-Council established the joint colony of Trinidad and Tobago. Following the report of a Royal Commission in 1897, Tobago’s identity became further subsumed in that of Trinidad as it became a mere district of the new colony of Trinidad and Tobago in 1898.

The first demands for internal self-government for Tobago began to be heard in 1977.

There then followed a half century of neglect by Trinidad and Tobago’s Legislative Council until Eric Williams, the leader of the People’s National Movement, which won the general election in 1956, promised to pay particular attention to the needs of Tobago, which he acknowledged had exchanged the neglect of British imperialism for ‘Trinidad imperialism’. The benefits promised by Williams, however, failed to materialize.  Significantly, there was no attempt to redress the imbalance in the relationship between the two islands in the 1962 Independence Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago. When the 1976 republican Constitution also ignored the relationship between the two islands, the first demands for internal self-government for Tobago began to be heard in 1977, led by ANR Robinson, the political leader of the Democratic Action Congress and the MP for Tobago East (subsequently Prime Minister between 1986-1991 and later the third president of Trinidad and Tobago). These resulted, in 1979, in the production of a draft bill, which made provision for a Tobago Island Council, empowered to formulate and implement policy in Tobago on economic planning and finance in general.

Currently, the Tobago House of Assembly enjoys certain powers, but the Executive Council remains subject to the general control and direction of the central government.

Though this bill was rejected by the central government, it did lead to the introduction of the Tobago House of Assembly Act in 1980. This Act made provision for a Tobago House of Assembly (THA) to formulate and implement policy on all matters referred to it by the relevant minister and to be responsible for implementing in Tobago the policy of the central government as it related to Tobago. Whilst this fell far short of the demands of Tobago’s political leaders who were seeking a much greater devolution of power, the THA was, nevertheless, enshrined in a subsequent amendment to Trinidad and Tobago’s Constitution in 1996. This amendment also provided for an Executive Council of the THA, consisting of a Chief Secretary and such number of Secretaries as may be prescribed. At the same time, the Tobago House of Assembly Act 1980 was repealed and replaced by the Tobago House of Assembly Act 1996 (THAA 1996). This Act, which remains in force, assigns to the THA responsibility over the matters listed in the Fifth Schedule, which include inter alia: tourism, the environment, health services, and education. The Executive Council, however, remains subject to the general control and direction of the central government. While the THA can propose and adopt bills which can then be transmitted to Cabinet with a request for them to be enacted by the national Parliament, no such bills have ever been enacted.

Background to current proposals for constitutional reform

When, in 2006, Prime Minister Patrick Manning presented the draft of a new Constitution for Trinidad and Tobago to the national Parliament, which simply replicated the existing arrangements and failed to make any mention of self-government for Tobago, the THA began in earnest to generate its own initiatives for constitutional reform. In October 2007, a committee under the chairmanship of Dr John Prince (the Prince Committee) was appointed by the THA to review the Constitution and the THAA 1996. Having consulted widely, the Prince Committee submitted its report to the THA in September 2011. This included two Bills providing for equality of status between the two islands, a federal system of government, and power to the THA to impose taxes.

Tobago seeks a federal system of government, and power to the THA to impose taxes.

In the meantime, and quite separately to these Tobago-generated initiatives, the People’s Partnership, led by Kamla Persad Bissessar, which had won the 2010 general election, published its own Green Paper in 2012: Towards Internal Self-Government for Tobago.  Attached to the Green paper was the Constitution (Amendment) (Tobago) Bill 2011, which sought to enhance the legislative and executive powers of the THA by providing for the establishment of a Legislature of Tobago which would have more or less exclusive responsibility for the matters designated in ‘the Tobago List’ and shared responsibility with the central government for the matters designated in the ‘concurrent List’.

The central government’s Green Paper was not, however, approved by THA, on the grounds that it was a less comprehensive document and less representative of the views of the people of Tobago than the two Bills produced by the Prince Committee. Thereafter, despite several meetings between the central government and political leaders from Tobago, as well an exchange of correspondence between the Chief Secretary of Tobago, Orville London, and Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar, little progress was made. By May 2015, the Chief Secretary, frustrated by the lack of progress, declared that the Central Government’s lack of enthusiasm had, effectively, stalled talks on self-government. However, the election in 2015 of the People’s National Movement, led by the Tobagonian native, Dr Keith Rowley, breathed new life into the process. The new Prime Minister declared that, ‘as a Tobagonian I have a duty to ensure that the process is completed in the shortest possible time, where Trinidad and Tobago gives the maximum autonomy that Tobago could have in the unitary state of Trinidad and Tobago’.

The current Prime Minister has indicated that Tobago should get the maximum autonomy that it could have in the unitary state of Trinidad and Tobago. 

In October 2016, a new Bill - an Act to amend the Constitution of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago to accord Self Government to Tobago - was approved by THA, and sent to the central government in accordance with s29 of the THAA 1996. Following clarification on a number of matters arising from this Bill, a revised Bill, the 2018 Bill, was approved by Cabinet and it is this 2018 Bill which is currently being reviewed by the JSC.

Key features of the 2018 Bill

Since there is not the space within this short piece to comment on every detail of the 2018 Bill, the piece instead focuses on its key proposals.

Right to Self-Determination and Equality of Status

A proposed amendment to the preamble of the 1976 Constitution would recognize the right of the people of Tobago to determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. A new constitutional provision would also provide for the equal status of the two islands.

Tobago Legislature

The proposed amendment provides for the establishment of the Tobago Legislature consisting of the President of Trinidad and Tobago, a House of Assembly (comprising 15 elected members and four Councilors: three appointed on the advice of the Chief Secretary and one appointed on the advice of the Minority Leader), and a People’s House (second chamber). The Tobago Legislature would have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of Tobago with respect to all matters except those listed in the Fourth Schedule, which will be the exclusive responsibility of the central government. Those matters include national security, foreign affairs, immigration and the appointment of the most senior public officials, which will continue to fall under the purview of the central government.

The Tobago Legislature would have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of Tobago with respect to all matters.

The composition of the Tobago Legislature marks a departure from the traditional composition of Commonwealth Caribbean legislatures in two respects. Firstly, in a break from the traditional Westminster model, where the leader of the party that wins the most seats automatically becomes prime minister, the Chief Secretary is to be elected by the members of the Assembly from amongst themselves; though the Minority Leader will be that person who commands the support of the largest number of members of the Assembly who do not support the Chief Secretary, in accordance with the Westminster model. Secondly, the People’s House marks a departure from the tradition of nomination which applies to second chambers elsewhere across the Commonwealth Caribbean, being composed of 13 elected members. Seven members are to be elected by the seven parishes of Tobago: one from each parish. The other six members are to be elected to represent the following six sectors: Commercial and Business, Tourism, Agriculture, Environment, Services and Legal.

Tobago Executive Council

A new s75A in the Constitution establishes a Tobago Executive Council which will have direction and control of the Tobago Island Government and which is responsible to the Tobago Legislature. The Executive Council will comprise the Chief Secretary, a Deputy Chief Secretary and a number of other Secretaries appointed in accordance with the advice of the Chief Secretary from among members of the House of Assembly. These Secretaries will be assigned responsibility for divisions within the Tobago island government and will exercise general direction and control over those divisions. Tobago matters are to be aired at Cabinet meetings by the Chief Secretary upon invitation and at mandatory quarterly meetings with the Prime Minister.

The system of government envisaged by the 2018 Bill may be described as ‘quasi-federal’.

When exercising his functions under the Constitution or any other law, the President must do so in accordance with (unless otherwise stated by the Constitution or any other such law) the advice of not only the Cabinet but also the Tobago Executive Council.  In return, the Chief Secretary would keep the President informed concerning matters of the Tobago Island Government.

Issues for the JSC

The system of government envisaged by the 2018 Bill may be described as ‘quasi-federal’. Even if the amended Constitution were to affirm equal status between the two islands, the system proposed in the 2018 Bill is more akin to that of a constitutionally decentralized union. It is basically unitary in form but incorporates a constitutionally protected sub-national unit of government which has functional autonomy. There will only be a regional government for Tobago, but not for Trinidad. It thus resembles the relationship between the Westminster Parliament in the UK and Scotland under the Scotland Act 1998. Indeed, this is just one of several systems of autonomous self-government referred to in the Green Paper accompanying the Bill.

There will only be a regional government for Tobago, but not for Trinidad.

The creation of a constitutionally decentralized union is not without its problems,  as the example of Scotland and the West Lothian problem illustrates. Under the 1976 Constitution, the national Parliament must contain at least two MPs from Tobago. This raises the question of what is to happen when the national Parliament votes on measures which affect Trinidad only. Will the Tobagonian MPs be excluded from voting on these issues? This seems unlikely, given the current composition of the lower house. The Government presently has a narrow majority, holding 23 of the 42 seats in the lower house. This majority includes the two MPs from Tobago. If these two MPs were not allowed to vote on matters that affected Trinidad only, the Government majority would be significantly reduced when these matters were voted upon.  

There is no specific proposal that the Senate should include senators who represent the interests of Tobago.

There is also the problem of lack of representation of Tobagonians in the Upper House of the national Parliament, which comprises 31 senators appointed by the President: 16 on the recommendation of the Prime Minister; six on the recommendation of the Leader of the Opposition; and nine by the President in his discretion from outstanding persons from economic or social or community organizations and other major fields of endeavour. There is thus no specific requirement that this should include senators who represent the interests of Tobago. This, in turn, raises the larger question of Tobagonian influence on the matters reserved to the central government, such as national security, foreign affairs etc. While the 2018 Bill provides for mandatory quarterly meetings between the Chief Secretary and the Prime Minister and the Chief Secretary may be invited to ‘air’ Tobago matters at cabinet meetings, this is at the discretion of the central government. As Tobagonians become accustomed to a measure of self-government, will they be satisfied with being excluded from decision-making in relation to such matters as national security and foreign affairs? The current stand-off between the Scottish Government and the UK Government regarding Brexit is illustrative of the kind of tensions that can arise from such an asymmetrical relationship.


Historically, Tobago was the constitutionally superior island. However, just as the downgrading of its constitutional status at the end of the nineteenth century was closely linked to a downturn in its economic fortunes, its current constitutional subordination to Trinidad is also linked to its economic fortunes. The last half century or so has witnessed an upturn in the financial prosperity of Trinidad, owed in large part to the oil industry which has developed around the substantial deposits found off the coast of Trinidad. By contrast, Tobago, with its many traditional fishing villages, reliance on tourism and arable farming, is viewed by some as being the poor relative who benefits and, indeed, relies on substantial subsidies from Trinidad. This has meant that Tobago’s needs and concerns are often sidelined by the central government when important decisions are made.

Self-government is, however, currently low on the popular and political agenda in both islands.

There is much, therefore, to commend the current attempts to balance the scales in the relationship between Trinidad and Tobago by enshrining Tobago’s ‘equality of status’ within the Constitution. Self-government is, however, currently low on the popular agenda in both islands. The more practical questions engaging minds locally have to do with ongoing discussions between the Government and Sandals Resorts over a proposed resort in Tobago, the breakdown of the inter-island ferry that has crippled several Tobago’s businesses, and whether Tobago should have its own Carnival. Despite the public words of support by both the current Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, self-government for Tobago may also not be particularly high on the political agenda. Almost three years into the current parliament, the Bill granting autonomy to Tobago is proceeding at a snail’s pace. As the time on the clock runs out for the current parliament, the likelihood of the Government obtaining the opposition support needed to secure the special majorities needed in both Houses of the national Parliament to pass the Bill becomes increasingly less likely.

Derek O’Brien is a Reader in Public Law, Oxford Brookes University, and Matthew Gayle is Barrister and Attorney at Law, Trinidad and Tobago.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.


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