Saturday, Dec 15, 2018

Lifeline

PM moves Rolle amid tensions in ministry
Lanisha Rolle.

It has been an open secret for months now.

Social Services Minister Lanisha Rolle has had a far-from-smooth relationship with key players in the Ministry of Social Services and Urban Development, from all reports emerging from that ministry. Trusted sources in the ministry have long whispered about it.

FNMs have long whispered about it, even some members of the party’s parliamentary caucus.

And now, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis has decided to make adjustments to his Cabinet lineup, with a light, underwhelming and singularly unimpressive shuffle of the deck, which takes effect today.

While Minnis has not given any clear reason for moving Rolle – as the move to reassign ministers is his prerogative – tensions emanating from the ministry were coming to a head.

Minnis timed his Cabinet reassignments to coincide with the start of the new fiscal year.

When he decided to remove Rolle, the only woman in his 19-member Cabinet, the prime minister had to decide what would be the best fit for her.

Rolle has demonstrated that she is fiercely loyal to Minnis, publicly defending him in the past when he faced troubled waters in opposition and going as far as condemning those parliamentarians within the FNM who sounded the alarm on his ineffective performance as opposition leader.

Minnis rewards loyalty. Rolle was rewarded with a nomination for Sea Breeze. After the FNM’s landslide victory and with the pickings of women MPs slim, she was further rewarded with a Cabinet position.

The prime minister no doubt likes having a cheerleader in his corner, even if there is no evidence on the national scene that her performance as a minister has been stellar.

A senior FNM observed, however, that Rolle is competent but has a difficulty managing politics and people.

The prime minister has reassigned her to the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture.

She was the last minister mentioned in the Cabinet Office statement issued on Monday, though it is widely accepted that the decision to reassign ministers was largely triggered by the unease within the social services ministry.

Minnis’ decision to move Rolle to Youth, Sports and Culture meant that he had to move Michael Pintard from that ministry.

Pintard has been moved to the Ministry of Agriculture and Marine Resources.

Michael Pintard.

We imagine that if he had a choice in the matter, he would have stayed at Youth, Sports and Culture, which allowed him to make better use of his creative talents.

Last year, Pintard announced the revamped Elite Athlete Subvention Program, which was created in 1996, primarily to assist with athletes returning to The Bahamas to compete.

He said he wanted to use sports as a “national development tool” to promote healthy living among Bahamians.

He is not new to the agriculture field, though.

Pintard completed an Associate of Arts in agriculture at The College of The Bahamas and also completed several graduate level courses in agricultural economics.

He was previously a consultant to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Renward Wells, the Bamboo Town MP who is leader of government business in the House, is the new minister of transport and local government.

Renward Wells.

His initial appointment was as agriculture minister.

There had been expectations among some observers of politics in The Bahamas that the prime minister was sending Wells to the Ministry of Public Works, moving Works Minister Desmond Bannister to the attorney general’s chair and appointing the current attorney general, Carl Bethel, chief justice (CJ) – a position that has gone unfilled for six months now.

Senior Justice Stephen Isaacs has been acting CJ since December.

While Wells, an engineer by profession, might have felt most at home in the Ministry of Works, the prime minister is no doubt mindful that such an appointment would have resurrected the still mysterious letter of intent (LOI) debacle in which Wells featured prominently.

The controversy was triggered in July 2014 when Wells, then parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Works, signed the LOI for a $600 million-plus waste-to-energy plant at the New Providence Landfill.

Back then Wells was a PLP.

Then Prime Minister Perry Christie fired him in October 2014, three months after asking him to resign for signing the document without authorization.

Minnis, while opposition leader, had repeatedly called for a full explanation in the matter. He had even called for a parliamentary select committee to look into it.

No such committee was ever appointed and no full explanation ever given.

Minnis was no longer interested in that explanation after charming Wells into the FNM’s fold in 2015.

That move temporarily solidified Minnis’ position as opposition leader as it warded off a threat to Minnis being ousted by the majority of the FNM’s parliamentary caucus.

The majority of FNM MPs eventually had him removed in late 2016, when then Fort Charlotte MP Dr. Andre Rollins joined the move to get rid of Minnis as opposition leader.

The decision had no impact on Minnis’ cemented position as leader of the FNM, and with the anti-Christie sentiment surging, Minnis cruised to a landslide victory months later.

Like Rolle, Wells was rewarded with a Cabinet appointment for his loyalty.

Up to the time of the 2016 vote against Minnis, he and his good friend, Rollins, had walked a similar political path.

Former Agriculture Minister Tennyson Wells told us yesterday that under Renward Wells there is renewed interest in agriculture.

“I think that Renward has repositioned the ministry for the future,” said Tennyson Wells, who was agriculture minister between 1992 and 1997 and now heads BAMSI.

“What that means is that there is new focus; because agriculture was dying, and he has refocused it and has gotten many, many people to want to get more involved in it, and that’s a major achievement, I think.”

As agriculture minister, Renward Wells said his ministry’s vision was to incorporate placing The Bahamas in a position to produce a regular supply of homegrown and home-raised food to feed ourselves at stable prices.

This has been the goal of successive agriculture ministers.

Wells will now focus on transport and local government.

The now former minister of transport and local government, Frankie Campbell, a former police officer, replaces Rolle in the Ministry of Social Services and Urban Development.

Frankie Campbell.

Concern

Former Social Services Minister Melanie Griffin, who was contacted by us for comment, told us the ministry has been in crisis under Rolle.

“In the area of disability, the head of the commission for the Disability Secretariat and his second resigned. We also had in the Department of Gender and Family Affairs, where the young lady who we had brought in, who was a Bahamian from the UN, she resigned,” Griffin said.

Griffin also said she is concerned about the future of the RISE program, which focused on poverty alleviation.

“The former minister (Lanisha Rolle) continued to say that the loan was coming to an end in August, but the fact of the matter is that they could have requested an extension of the program, because it was a loan and loans have been extended before.”

In 2012, the Christie administration signed an agreement with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) for a $7.5 million loan for the establishment of a social safety net program.

Speaking yesterday about the RISE program, Griffin said, “It was a landmark program that was intended to break the cycle of poverty in families where there was generational poverty, and all of this was thrown by the wayside; and so I indicated that social services was in crisis.

“I’m only hoping that things will be better at social services because we have career social workers, technicians who know their work, but I do not think that they were allowed to do it.

“I want only what is best for our people. People are walking up to me on the streets over and repeatedly complaining, but there was not much that I could do except bring it to the attention of the people who will listen.”

Griffin said the prime minister must have seen the wisdom in bringing new leadership and “hopefully it would bring some much-needed improvement”.

Lifeline

For her part, Rolle has mostly been dismissive of the media ever since she was appointed minister last year.

While Wells, Campbell and Pintard were accommodating when they were approached by reporters outside Cabinet yesterday, Rolle said, “No”, meaning ‘I have nothing to say’.

She has very rarely spoken to the media when approached by reporters with questions about matters within her portfolio.

In media circles, she is viewed as the most unapproachable of all the ministers in the Minnis Cabinet.

When approached by reporters, her response has sometimes been “Press secretary”, meaning ‘Go talk to Ace Newbold, the prime minister’s press secretary’.

This is not good.

There is a certain arrogance about such dismissive dealings with the media.

It could be rooted in incompetence or a lack of confidence in her own leadership of the ministry and what she has been able to achieve, if anything.

We have seen it play out repeatedly in Bahamian politics — insecurity and incompetence often breed arrogance.

This is not to say that every arrogant politician is incompetent, but an arrogant politician without the ability to perform effectively is even harder to stomach.

When Rolle was a senator, she did not have a good run in the media.

She has chosen now to remain scripted as a minister, speaking from written speeches in Parliament and at various public events.

At times when the occasion has called for her to convey compassion with respect to the thousands of disenfranchised people impacted by her ministry’s work, she has struggled to do so.

In the past, she proved to be an embarrassment to Minnis and the FNM. Perhaps she has been advised to avoid talking extemporaneously. When she did so in the past, she landed in hot water.

In January 2016, Rolle came under fire when she publicly accused then FNM Deputy Leader Loretta Butler-Turner and some sitting FNM MPs of being “jealous”.

Speaking on a Guardian Radio talk show, Rolle said the country was tired of “dictatorial styles” of leadership, and Butler-Turner and any other in the party who chose to challenge Minnis would “fail in any dishonorable approach”.

Later in 2016, Rolle resigned from the Senate, claiming it was for personal reasons.

Her resignation came as a recording of a conversation she had with political activist Lincoln Bain was widely circulated on social media.

In the recording, Rolle made disparaging remarks against senior FNMs.

When she resigned in May 2016, Rolle said in a statement, “At this current time in my life I need to focus on a few personal matters and do not feel I will be able to devote the time needed to best serve the Bahamian people.

“I cannot in good conscience allow myself to continue to serve while not being able to focus all of my attention to the work of the people”

Five months later, Rolle accepted the FNM’s nomination for Sea Breeze, after determining that she was then able to devote her time to serving the Bahamian people.

She has flown largely below the radar ever since.

Her voice has been near inaudible on the national stage, despite the many critical social challenges impacting the country.

On a rare occasion, when she decided to talk to the media last December, Rolle made an unfortunate statement on marital rape.

While she said the government does not support any form of violence against women, she said marital rape was a “private issue”, and the government wants to protect the “privacy of individuals and of marriages”.

Rolle’s comment drew rebuke from various quarters, given her failure to express unequivocal support for the criminalization of marital rape.

Her odd views on various matters have previously been documented.

After she was appointed senator in 2015, Rolle said that while she believes in complying with the Public Disclosure Act, she also believes in privacy.

“I’m saying that some things in the act can be improved upon in terms of balancing with an individual’s right to privacy,” she said.

In an earlier Facebook post, Rolle wrote, “Now listen about the public disclosure bit, I am not 100 percent with the rule because it needs to be balanced with an individual’s right to privacy.”

While tensions in her now former ministry have largely been playing out outside the public eye, they may portend what’s to come in her new role.

If Rolle has had a difficult time getting along with public servants or getting them to buy into her vision for the Ministry of Social Services and Urban Development and that of the government, she’s not likely to have better luck in the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture unless she makes a significant shift in how she relates to those she will work with.

In her former ministry, she developed a reputation as a micro manager.

Rolle is now responsible for a ministry that deals directly with various federations for most sports disciplines in the country, youth organizations and the cultural community.

Many of the people she will have to deal with are private individuals who will not likely have the same level of patience as public servants dealing with a minister who might not be easy to get along with.

The prime minister has also reassigned veteran public servant Jack Thompson as permanent secretary in the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture.

Perhaps the thinking there is that he is best positioned to assist the minister with settling into the new role and better chart her way in a new ministry.

While some political observers, FNMs included, were of the view that the prime minister should have fired Rolle from the Cabinet, Minnis has extended her a lifeline.

Not only has she been loyal to him as leader, Rolle is the only woman in the Cabinet.

While Rolle has not been a standout in her role as a minister, Minnis would face criticisms over having an all-male Cabinet in a 21st century Bahamas, where we have already regressed in terms of the role of women in national political leadership.

It is worth watching to see if Rolle takes advantage of the new opportunity.

There are four years left in the term.

If she has difficult relationships in her new ministry, if the tensions mount there too, then she very well may be better suited for the backbench.

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