Sunday, December 18, 2011

...exactly why was Ken Russell fired from Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham's Cabinet?

Cabinet rules that led to firing


WELL, this is all very confusing, isn’t it?

Just before an election the leader of the FNM gets into a nomination spat with a three-time successful candidate in one of the party’s Grand Bahama strongholds.

The 58-year-old candidate is a Cabinet minister, who has complained publicly about changes to the boundaries of his High Rock constituency, recently redrawn as East Grand Bahama. And in quick time, he is sacked from the Cabinet and starts behaving like Tennyson Wells – right before the election.

So what is this all about? Where does party business end and government business begin in this political squabble? And exactly why was Ken Russell fired?

Social media websites were deluged over the weekend with questions and opinions on these unusual developments. Most of those comments, and much newspaper coverage as well, focused on the nomination issue, and the supposed rift between “original” FNMs and so-called “Ingrahamites”, who joined the party after 1990.

For example, Ivan Johnson in The Punch said the controversy revolved around Russell’s “gross disrespect” of Ingraham over the nomination issue. And tensions were so high at a meeting in Grand Bahama on Sunday, The Punch said, that a special security detail had to accompany the prime minister.

This was denied to me by individuals who attended the packed meeting in Freeport, and an online video of Ingraham’s remarks showed no evidence of dissent or hostility amongst the exuberant crowd of FNM supporters, despite Ken Russell’s obvious presence in the audience.

“The PM has enraged the Cecilite FNMs with his cold and harsh treatment” of Ken Russell, Kendal Wright and Verna Grant, The Punch wrote on Monday. Meanwhile, Russell had earlier told the Freeport News he did not know why he was fired. Branding Ingraham a “tyrant”, he said he would seek to run in the next election anyway.

However, insiders say the sacking had little to do with Russell’s attempt to hold onto the FNM nomination, or to any disagreement over the redrawing of constituency boundaries. He was fired because he publicly opposed a Cabinet decision.

Under our system of government, ministers must support in public the collective judgment of the government and their Cabinet colleagues. A minister who cannot support a major government policy is expected to resign. Or face dismissal by the prime minister.

This is clearly spelled out in The Manual on Cabinet Procedure: “A fundamental principle of Cabinet government is unity. It is important to present a united front to the public. If any minister feels conscientiously unable to support a decision taken by Cabinet, he has one course open to him and that is to resign his office.”

And in a telling comment to The Tribune by Maurice Moore – one of the original so-called “Cecilites” and the former parliamentary representative for High Rock – “Russell didn’t handle the matter correctly.”

In fact, the reason for Ken Russell’s firing goes back to the waning months of the Christie administration, when the government received a proposal from an American company known as Beka Development. Beka reportedly wanted to acquire 64,000 acres in east Grand Bahama at a concessionary price of $2,800 per acre.

According to Sir Arthur Foulkes, writing in The Tribune in March 2007, “Mr Christie and his colleagues in the PLP government must have taken leave of their senses even to entertain such a proposal. But it is obvious that preliminary talks have taken place and that Beka has been encouraged to proceed.”

Since then, Beka has turned its attentions to the island of Eleuthera, where it is supposedly pursuing a multi-million-dollar project on privately owned pristine coastline at South Point. This project is opposed by environmentalists, and last summer Beka said its failure to advance the Grand Bahama project was also due to environmental issues, “and the fact that 80 per cent of the required land was government-owned”.

Meanwhile, the original east Grand Bahama project seems to have morphed into something else. Last year, The Tribune reported that a mysterious company called “the Cylin Group, whose principals include the daughter of the Chinese defence minister, was looking at a major tourism development on 2,000 acres of land in the Sharp Rock area”.

This project was said to include hotels, a casino, a cruiseship terminal and a marina to be built by Chinese companies. Most of the land was said to be owned by the Grand Bahama Development Corp (Devco) and the Port Group. Devco is half owned by the Port Group and half by Hutchinson Whampoa, a Chinese company.

Insiders say that after the FNM took office in May 2007 the Grand Bahama Port Authority told government it had not agreed to transfer any land to Cylin, and subsequent inquiries as to where the money for the project was coming from were not favourable. “Nevertheless, the government gave the project the benefit of the doubt and allowed it to come before Cabinet, where it was voted down on four separate occasions.”

In Ingraham’s own words, “we would like to have any kind of project in Grand Bahama, but we also want to do things that we think make sense and not everybody who comes along and says we’ve got something is somebody who we could trust”. He added that Russell promoted the project in public even though it had been rejected by the government four times.

On Monday, Russell admitted as much to The Freeport News. He said he was working with investors seeking to do a $1.5 billion development on Grand Bahama. He acknowledged that the investors had applied to the Port Authority for land but their request had been turned down. Very little is known about this proposed project or the developers themselves.

The nomination issue is a separate matter, insiders say. This is apparently a case of the FNM leadership trying to recruit fresh talent to revitalise the party ahead of an election. However, there are those who argue that the Cabinet rules issue was a pretext to get rid of Russell, an ineffective minister who was obstinately refusing to step down as a candidate despite an earlier undertaking to do so.

In this context, there is no doubt that the FNM leadership has the biggest say in deciding the slate of election candidates. According to the party’s constitution, candidates are recommended by the executive committee (chaired by the party leader), after consultation with constituency associations. The recommendations are then ratified by the FNM council, which is also chaired by the party leader.

“I met with the High Rock, now East Grand Bahama, Constituency Association earlier this afternoon,” Ingraham told the crowd in Freeport on Sunday, “and invited them to put forward the names of at least two candidates that you could consider to carry your party’s flag for East Grand Bahama in the next election, and I expect to hear from them in short order.”

He added that some sitting FNM members of parliament will resign of their own volition and others will be asked to make way for new candidates.

The subtext to all this is the future of the Grand Bahama Port Authority itself – a private franchise with enormous value for the country as a whole. Insiders say that the island’s economic woes combined with the Port Authority’s lack of direction creates a huge dilemma for the government, which does not want to be seen as intervening heavy-handedly in private enterprise, abrogating the Hawksbill Creek Agreement or pre-empting the courts.

But at the meeting on Sunday Ingraham put the GBPA on notice. “After the next election we will say to the Port Authority, this or that. And so it will be very much a question of Grand Bahama’s future in the next general election, which will take place not long from now.” It is not clear what he meant, and Ingraham declined to elaborate for me.

Meanwhile, the opposition PLP is said to be working assiduously behind the scenes to get disgruntled FNM’s to run for the PLP or cross the floor and support a vote of no confidence in the government. This would presumably force the prime minister to dissolve parliament, after which a general election must be held within 90 days.

If this does not happen the government can constitutionally continue in office until May 2 (the date of the 2007 election), when parliament must be dissolved and an election held within 90 days. So theoretically, the prime minister has until the end of July to hold elections, although most observers believe a February poll is more likely.

Of course, most observers believed a November election was in the cards too.

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December 15, 2011