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No reshuffling away Govt’s sport issue

Saturday, April 14, 2018

He clearly wasn’t his usual carefree self in Parliament yesterday. PNM’s Darryl Smith, minus Sport or Housing responsibilities and reduced to only MP status, sat with drawn face on the second-to-last seat of Government’s backbench.

Photographers’ camera-snapping was rapid fire in his direction at key “money shot” points. Bowed head in hand briefly. Hand holding face tightly. Head propped on hand. Leaning back in the large chair, Smith had just watched his boss face a barrage of Opposition questions on Sport Ministry and other issues allegedly concerning him.

At the end, Prime Minister Keith Rowley roared at the Opposition, “This matter is no more urgent than allegations made when you were in Government!”

“Da’s not the issue!” UNC MPs roared back.

“…Sexual harassment in public office didn’t start with this Government so don’t play holier-than-thou here for me!” Rowley retorted.

So vigorous was the Opposition’s response that it cost UNC MP Rudy Indarsingh the rest of the sitting after House Speaker Brigid Annisette-George expelled him. At the end of question time, Smith—no business at hand—also left at 2.30 pm.

Yesterday’s clashes bear out the depth of the Sport issue confronting Rowley and his administration. His recent reshuffle of five Ministers was a response to more than one pressure issue: the main one, appearing to be Sports/Smith following the Ministry’s $150,000 settlement to an ex-employee and certain allegations.

Sport—to which Shamfa Cudjoe was shifted—is now something of a “hot seat” after Rowley mandated a probe team to examine the issues there.

Shifting Cudjoe from Tourism followed complaints about her performance (and attitude) peaking correspondent with Tobago’s ferry woes. But both Cudjoe and Smith had assumed negative spotlight last year with her $59,000 roaming phone bill and his controversial $92,000 Magdalena stay at a time when Government preached cost-cutting.

Cudjoe’s shift to Sport will serve as ample warning on performance and comportment considering her predecessor’s fate. Tourism replacement Randall Mitchell is similarly on notice.

It wasn’t unexpected McDonald would have been promoted in Public Administration/Communication at some point. Rowley was under pressure concerning former Minister Maxie Cuffie’s extended sick leave on full salary since last September. McDonald, however, still has a police probe overhead concerning the Calabar Foundation.

But the Sport matter is currently the focus challenge to Government’s image as well as Rowley’s management skills.

It will remain live for the next two weeks until Rowley’s investigating team reports, by the time he returns from his London trip on April 24. It remains to unfold what “evidence” Smith may reveal from his side.

The absence of full explanations and instructions by Ministers to “wait” until the team’s report in, have raised enough queries about his process. Consequently, such concerns—apart from on alleged aspects regarding Smith/Sports—have expanded the issue.

OPM’s Stuart Smith said Rowley shared the situation with his Cabinet on Thursday. Between that disclosure and his return, it remains to unfold, what increased speculation/misinformation—Government’s main complaint recently—could arise in the two-week vacuum.

Questions will also arise for the post-report period: if Smith’s “cleared” will he be rehired a la McDonald? Will criticism likely if his “evidence” doesn’t hold up, cost him his seat before 2020? If exonerated, will negative spotlight be completely eradicated considering the convoluted handling process?

If Government’s transparency profile is challenged on the Sport/Smith issue, it’s pushing to make up on the Cambridge Analytica issue locally, involving alleged illegal data harvesting during the last Government’s tenure.

On Monday in Parliament, post-reshuffle PNM’s Marlene McDonald attempted (unsuccessfully) to swing debate to the CA issue. Government will bank on upcoming Parliamentary debate on CA to repivot the spotlight to the Opposition. Government officials said debate will be by May latest, with added probe by a Parliamentary committee.

How the political pendulum swings in—and after—the next two weeks on the Sport issue and others, remains ahead.


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