Trinidad and Tobago country brief

Overview

Australia’s warm relations with Trinidad and Tobago are largely based on shared historical, sporting, social, economic and political ties, as well as our close cooperation in the Commonwealth and the United Nations. Sporting ties include a shared love of cricket and netball, and participation in events such as the Commonwealth Games.

Trinidad and Tobago comprises two islands in the Lesser Antilles, just off the north-eastern coast of Venezuela. The islands share maritime borders with Barbados, Grenada, Guyana and Venezuela.

Australia and Trinidad and Tobago formally established diplomatic relations on 7 January 1974. Australia established a High Commission in Port of Spain in July 2004, after Australia’s representation in the Caribbean was previously located in Barbados and Jamaica. Australia's High Commissioner in Port of Spain has non-resident accreditation for thirteen other countries in the region. Australia also maintains Honorary Consulates in Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica. Australia has a relatively small population of approximately 1,407 people (2011 Census) born in Trinidad & Tobago.

The island of Trinidad was first occupied by Amerindians, whose ancestors had migrated from Central Asia. Trinidad was sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1498, whereafter Spain claimed an exclusive monopoly over the island based on papal authority. A period of light Spanish settlement was followed by a period of growing French influence. The British took control in 1797.

Tobago was claimed by the Spanish but not colonised. During the seventeenth century, Tobago changed hands numerous times as the English, French and Dutch wrestled for control. In 1704, it was declared a neutral territory, effectively leaving room for pirates to use the island as a base for raiding ships in the eastern Caribbean. The British returned to establish a colonial administration on Tobago in 1763. In 1889, the British made Tobago, which previously had its own independent legislature, a ward of neighbouring Trinidad.

The population of Trinidad and Tobago is approximately 1.4 million (2016). Its composition reflects its rich history of migration (including periods of African slavery and indentured labour from India). The two major ethnic groups are descendants of East Indians (35.4%) and Africans (34.2%), with an additional 7.7 per cent of mixed Afro-Indo ethnicity (2011 figures). The remaining 22.7 per cent comprise a mix of Chinese, European, Lebanese and Syrians — in effect, the vast majority of the population is blended.

Over half of the population identify as Christian: Roman Catholic (22%); Pentecostal/Evangelical/Full Gospel (12%); Baptist (7%); Anglican (6%); Seventh Day Adventist (4%); Presbyterian (2.5%); and Jehovah’s Witness (1.5%). Other major religions include Hinduism (18%) and Islam (5%). English is the official language, while Caribbean Hindustani, Chinese, French and Spanish are also spoken.

Political overview

Trinidad and Tobago achieved full independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, and subsequently joined the Commonwealth and the United Nations. In 1967, Trinidad and Tobago became the first Commonwealth country to join the Organization of American States. In 1976, a republican constitution was adopted, replacing the Queen as Head of State with a president elected by the parliament.

System of government

Trinidad and Tobago is a republic with a bicameral national parliament modelled on the British system. The President is the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and is elected by the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Prime Minister is determined by a general election, which takes place every five years.

The Senate consists of 31 members, 22 appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and nine independent senators appointed by the President.

The House of Representatives consists of 41 members representing single-member constituencies (39 for Trinidad and two for Tobago). The Speaker can be elected from within or outside the House of Representatives, provided the candidate is a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, and not disqualified for election as a Member of the House of Representatives.

The judiciary is an independent arm of government, mandated by the Constitution to perform oversight over the Executive and to act as a forum for the resolution of legal disputes. It is headed by the Chief Justice and comprises the Supreme Court and the Magistracy.

The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) was inaugurated in April 2005 to replace the British Privy Council as the highest court of appeal in the CARICOM region and is located in Port of Spain. The CCJ hears appeals as the court of last resort in both civil and criminal matters from those member states that have ceased to allow appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Trinidad and Tobago is in the process of transitioning to the CCJ. Caribbean countries currently under the jurisdiction of the CCJ include Barbados, Belize, Dominica, and Guyana.

At the regional level, Tobago has a unicameral House of Assembly comprising twelve elected members, an additional three councillors appointed by the majority party, one councillor appointed by the minority party, as well as a Presiding Officer, who may or may not be an assemblyman or a councillor. Established in 1980, the Tobago House of Assembly has limited regional autonomy, including some powers over the island's finances and other delegated policy responsibilities but lacks the ability to collect taxes or impose local laws or zoning regulations.

Recent developments

President Anthony Carmona was elected in March 2013 and Dr Keith Rowley became Prime Minister following the success of his People’s National Movement at the September 2015 elections. A presidential election is next due to be held in February 2018, and general parliamentary election in 2020.

Foreign and trade policy

Since its independence, Trinidad and Tobago has played an increasingly important role as a political and economic leader in the Caribbean. Given its sizeable population and significant natural resources, Trinidad and Tobago is one of the larger Caribbean countries, with an economy supported by a long-established oil and natural gas industry. Trinidad and Tobago also plays a lead role in the region's major political grouping, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Trinidad and Tobago is also a member of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS); the Secretariat of the ACS is located in the capital, Port of Spain.

Bilateral relations

The Australia-Trinidad and Tobago bilateral relationship is underpinned by sporting links, joint membership of the Commonwealth and the United Nations, and growing commercial ties.

Regionally, the Australian Government has sought to strengthen its ties with the Caribbean, and formally established relations with the Caribbean Community through a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2009. The MOU focused on areas of mutual interest, including the promotion of foreign and economic policies, disaster risk reduction, economic resilience, and people-to-people and institutional linkages.

From 2010 to 2014, Australia provided over $60 million in official development assistance to the Caribbean region, including 128 Australia Awards scholarships. Trinidad and Tobago benefited directly from the program until December 2011, receiving four Australia Awards scholarships and two fellowships, and participating in diplomatic training and sports training programs. It also benefitted from regional activities on climate change and disaster risk reduction and economic resilience. The regional program has now concluded, but several activities that have already been funded will continue until 2018.

Trinidad and Tobago students are eligible to apply for Australia Awards Endeavour Scholarships and Fellowships. Applications for the program opens annually in April and closes in June.

Australia’s BHP is a major producer of oil and gas in Trinidad and Tobago and is in the midst of a closely watched deep-water exploration program in waters north-east of Trinidad that is expected to recommence in January 2018. WorleyParsons, an Australian engineering firm providing project delivery and consultancy services to the resources and energy sectors, also has a substantial presence in Trinidad and Tobago.

Economic overview

For the latest economic data and details on the bilateral economic and trade relationship between Australia and Trinidad and Tobago, refer to our Trinidad and Tobago fact sheet [PDF].

Economic and trade policy directions

Trinidad and Tobago’s economy is largely based on offshore oil and gas production, and the country has become a major financial centre in the Caribbean. In 2016, Trinidad and Tobago was the world’s sixth-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and the largest LNG exporter to the United States, accounting for nearly 74 per cent of US LNG imports. The United States is the country’s largest trading partner, accounting for 28 per cent of its total imports and receiving 48 per cent of its exports. Latin America is also a major market for Trinidad and Tobago’s LNG exports.

Trinidad and Tobago relies on its energy sector for much of its economic activity, including downstream industrial use, and the strength of its economy has mirrored the health of its energy sector. The economy overall experienced strong growth since 2002, with GDP per capita rising from US$7,061 (2002) to a peak of US$20,611 in 2013. Since then falls in energy prices and production have seen per capita GDP drop to an estimated $15,838 in 2017.

As a net oil exporting country, Trinidad and Tobago is one of two countries in the region not party to Venezuela’s Petro-Caribe scheme that provides preferential or deferred payment options for purchasing oil. Trinidad and Tobago continues to maintain one of the highest GDP per capita incomes in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Trinidad and Tobago Government has placed emphasis on economic diversification (particularly into technologies-based energy-intensive industries), value–adding in the energy sector, and on building tighter linkages between the energy and non-energy economies. As a result, Trinidad has one of the most diversified and advanced production structures in the Caribbean — a heavy industrial sector (e.g. machinery and chemicals) and a light manufacturing sector (e.g. food and furniture), both of which have benefitted from low power prices. The Government has been refining its national energy policy to support sustainable national development including, for example, considering potential for the use of renewable energy combined with energy efficiency, and the use of compressed natural gas in the transportation sector. The adoption in 2014 of the National Climate Change Policy aims to support mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

As the largest CARICOM economy, Trinidad and Tobago plays a leading role in the Caribbean region and has promoted regional market integration. In January 2006, the Caribbean Single Market Economy (CSME) came into effect. The CSME allows for the free trade of goods and services between CARICOM countries (except the Bahamas and Haiti, which have not joined the CSME) and the free movement of certain categories of labour. The Caribbean Court of Justice, sitting in its original jurisdiction, acts as a CSME disputes mechanism. Further information on the CSME can be found on DFAT’s regional brief, ‘The Caribbean’.

Economic outlook

Trinidad and Tobago outstripped regional economic growth rates from 2000 to 2007, averaging slightly over eight per cent growth per year, before peaking in 2013. Since then, a period of contraction has set in that is forecast to continue. Inflation, interest rates and unemployment are forecast to remain stable.

Trade and investment

In recent years, Trinidad and Tobago has usually been Australia's largest trading partner in the Caribbean with total two-way merchandise trade at approximately $27 million in 2016. Australia's exports were primarily meat (lamb, sheepmeat), alcoholic beverages (wine), cheese and measuring and analytical instruments. Main imports from Trinidad and Tobago were essential oils and perfumes (bitters), and alcoholic beverages (rum). In August 2006, the Trinidad and Tobago Government purchased two Australian-made fast passenger ferries worth approximately $90 million. In 2009, the Trinidad and Tobago Government purchased six patrol boats from Australian company Austal for use by the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard.

Australia and Trinidad and Tobago have a shared interest in ensuring well-functioning energy markets, where both economies have benefited from strong world demand for energy and high energy prices. BHP is a major oil and gas producer in Trinidad and Tobago. In 2014, BHP announced it would invest US$1 billion in further exploration in a program of deep-water exploration that is set to resume in January 2018.Australian consultant engineering firm Worley Parsons is also active in the resources and energy sector in Trinidad and Tobago.

High level visits

  • July 2017 — Foreign Minister Julie Bishop met Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Keith Rowley and Foreign Minister Dennis Moses in the margins of the Thirty-Eighth Regular Meeting of the Conference of the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in Grenada.
  • April 2014 — Australia’s former House of Representatives Speaker Bronwyn Bishop visited Trinidad and Tobago.
  • October 2011 — Trinidad and Tobago’s former Prime Minister Persad-Bissessar visited Australia for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
  • November 2009 — Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former Foreign Minister Stephen Smith visited Trinidad and Tobago for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
  • December 2006 — Australia's former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer visited Trinidad and Tobago and formally opened the Australian High Commission in Port of Spain.
Last Updated: 20 July 2017