The undoing of Kenneth Russell
A closer look at the housing minister’s firing
By Erica Wells
Guardian Managing Editor
Every political leader must make decisions that please or infuriate. Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham has developed a reputation for being one of those leaders who has no difficulty making the ones that infuriate.
For example, last week he frankly told reporters that there would be some new faces in the Free National Movement’s line-up of candidates going in to the next election. Among those would not be sitting MPs who are not seeking reelection and those who the party felt were no longer suitable fits.
This has not sat well with some long-serving party members, and at least one has come out publically against the decision.
Those who speak out publically against Ingraham usually meet the same fate. Just ask Pierre Dupuch, Tennyson Wells or Branville McCartney.
High Rock MP Kenneth Russell last week became the latest casualty among some of those who have defied Ingraham publically.
Russell was fired last week Friday from his cabinet post. Many immediately assumed the decision had to do with his audacious challenge to the prime minister made in the media the day before.
But party insiders familiar with the situation said that Russell’s undoing started more than a week earlier, and that Russell’s criticisms of Ingraham at a party meeting in Grand Bahama on Thursday night were ultimately what sealed the former housing minister’s fate.
“Russell doomed himself,” a party insider told Guardian National Review. “Russell began to sow the seeds of his firing last week.”
The party insider was referring to a meeting held in Grand Bahama during the first week in December, when Ingraham and a delegation were on the island for a coming together of the top brass of the party, including MPs, branch chairmen and party executives.
It was at that meeting, said the party source, that Russell’s branch chairman raised the issue of a proposed development for East Grand Bahama and the cabinet’s decision to not approve the resort project that was touted by some as having the potential to create several thousand jobs.
Ingraham reportedly said that the project had too many issues and was not ultimately a good or viable one for the long-struggling island economy.
“The feeling was that the only way Russell’s branch chairman would have known about the cabinet’s conclusion was if Russell had told him,” said the party source. “That was private cabinet business. It was not in the public domain.”
“The PM could not allow Russell to undermine his authority. Russell had lost credibility in the PM’s eyes,” the source added.
The cabinet statement announcing Russell’s termination cited that Russell was “relieved of all ministerial responsibilities arising out of conduct by Mr. Russell inconsistent with his ministerial duties”.
The statement did not provide further details; however, FNM sources point to the meeting as the sea change that ultimately led to Russell’s termination. This combined with statements by Russell criticizing the prime minister – for not going ahead with the development – to others on the island as recently as Thursday night made for an untenable situation, according to party sources.
Hours after he was ordered to pack up his office on Friday, Russell told this newspaper: “If my push to have business come to Grand Bahama is what caused him to fire me, then so be it. If my push to get as many houses built and change the Ministry of Housing to a better place is what caused him to fire me, so be it.”
Russell said that he knew more than a year ago that there was a rift between he and Ingraham. He said he did not know why Ingraham had “turned away from him”.
That friendship presumably became even more strained when Ingraham made it clear that Russell would not represent the FNM in the upcoming general election.
That’s when Russell told reporters that he would run on the FNM’s ticket in Grand Bahama with or without Ingraham’s approval.
Trouble in Grand Bahama for the FNM?
Russell has deep roots within the FNM. He is a former chairman and vice-chairman of the Free National Movement High Rock Constituency Association, and was elected to the House of Assembly for the High Rock constituency in 1997. He was one of the few FNMs re-elected to another term in 2002.
He was a member of the Housing Commission for Grand Bahama from 1992 to 1998, and a member of the Local Government Council for Freeport from 1996 until his election to Parliament. He also served as chairman of the Town Planning Committee for New Providence and The Bahamas between 1997 and 2001, and as a cabinet minister with responsibility for Public Works between 2001 and 2002.
Russell said that while he had previously thought that Ingraham was “more democratic” than anyone else he knew, he was learning that Ingraham could also be a “tyrant”.
“Let Grand Bahama make the selection (of who it wants to run). Grand Bahama is [part of] a free country. Let them make the selection. It’s not for you as one man to do,” said Russell in an interview on Friday after he was fired.
“The prime minister painted a good picture for me, and I thought the prime minister was a democratic man, was a man who had a heart because of what he showed me in my experience with him. He was more democratic than anyone else I know. Or so I thought. And he was a man (who) was down to earth – don’t mind the rough exterior.
“But now, I’m learning that he could also be a tyrant. That’s what I’m learning now. I learned it the hard way. Now he (has) the power; he could destroy me and he is freely welcome to do so, but God is in control of this ship.”
This latest development in the Free National Movement so close to a general election could mean trouble for the party.
Ingraham already has the reputation as an autocratic leader. It is a trait that his opponents highlight at every opportunity. And it was dissension in the party that some political observers said played a role in the FNM’s 2002 defeat.
However, despite the leadership fight in the run up to 2002, Ingraham was able to unify and rally the party and beat the one-term Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), which had a huge majority in the House of Assembly, including all but one seat in New Providence.
There is also the issue of whether Ingraham and the FNM have the support needed to retain the party’s seats in Grand Bahama, which some say has been “largely ignored” by this administration.
The island’s economy has been suffering for years, well before the global economic downturn. Unemployment is at 15 percent and promises that the government made to create a ministry to specifically focus on Grand Bahama have gone unfulfilled and may come back to haunt the FNM come election time.
“It now appears that Mr. Ingraham will not have as easy a time imposing his will on the Grand Bahama FNM Council as he has done in the past,” said the Progressive Liberal Party’s northern branch in a press statement.
“The main reason for this is that Grand Bahamians in general, including members of the Grand Bahama FNM Council, place most of the blame for the state of Grand Bahama’s economy at the doorstep of Mr. Ingraham.”
But the PLP has to share some of the blame for the poor state of Grand Bahama, which struggled for years under the Perry Christie-led administration.
Russell’s termination marked the seventh time this term that a minister has left the cabinet. Claire Hepburn, Sir Michael Barnett, Elma Campbell and Carl Bethel stepped down to take up different posts. Sidney Collie resigned after the local government elections debacle in July 2008; and Branville McCartney, who did not get along with Ingraham, resigned in 2010. McCartney later formed the Democratic National Alliance.
Dec 12, 2011