TOBAGONIANS will head to the polls again to try to resolve the six-six deadlock from the January 25 elections for the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), a divided Senate decided at almost midnight on Tuesday.
Following the previous lead of the Lower House, the Senate passed the Tobago House of Assembly (Amendment) Bill 2021, without amendment.
The bill will also see the Election and Boundaries Commission redraw Tobago’s electoral districts so as to increase the number of THA seats from 12 at present to 15, an odd number drawn from a dormant 2018 Tobago self-governance bill to try to avert a repeat of any tie.
In committee stage, Independent Senators variously split between supporting the bill in its original form against amendments proposed by the likes of Opposition Senator Wade Mark and Independent Senator Dr Maria Dillon-Remy. However the Government marginally won the vote each time a division was taken on a proposed amendment or on the question to approve each clause.
The final vote for the bill to be read a third time in the Senate was carried by a narrow margin due to the Government winning one extra vote, that is, Independent Senator Paul Richards, for a final vote of 16 for and 14 against.
Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi in his wrap up argued the bill needed just a simple majority as had been garnered by the original THA Act. He said precedent existed for legislation to establish the number of seats on an elected body as done in 1967 to establish seven county councils in Trinidad.
The AG used the occasion to name the senior counsel whose legal opinions had advised him on the 2021 bill. These were Russell Martineau, Douglas Mendes, Deborah Peake, Elton Prescott and Gilbert Peterson.
The AG agreed with Independent Senator Anthony Vieira’s earlier description of the deadlocked THA as “a zombie council, neither dead nor alive” that needed remedying.
In the debate, Government Senator Nigel de Freitas rejected the idea of six-six tie being a desired outcome. saying it was unexpected and that every single person voting PNM or PDP had voted for their party to win rather than voting for a tie.
Opposition Senator Anil Roberts argued Tobago should be let sort out the tie rather than a Parliament based in Trinidad. Independent Senator Evans Welch argued that the rule of law said that if a law exists to remedy a situation it must be applied. however inconvenient, unsuitable or impractical. Welch said the THA standing orders allow for the assembly to use procedures from parliament including drawing lots to decide on a THA presiding officer towards breaking the deadlock.
Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat said this issue was not about Trinidad interfering in Tobago’s affairs, as TT remains a unitary State.
Opposition Senator Damian Lyder said the bill missed the mark by trying to change the election outcome.
Independent Senator Anthony Vieira cautioned that the bill’s impact would last far beyond the current political impasse.