Saturday 30th April, 2005

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PM pulls up the team

Even if Works Minister Franklin Khan felt confident enough last week to hint that polls are “closer than you think,” Wednesday’s bribery allegations in Parliament have raised questions on whether that projection is accurate.

Or if indeed—as a Cabinet source hinted Thursday—changes among ministerial ranks are more likely first, in order to set the stage for polls.

Regardless of current play, PNM ministers are watching even closer after certain action the leadership initiated in Finance and Foreign Affairs in the last couple weeks.

Mid-term is a time when people begin thinking about performance and how they may vote, says Pt Fortin MP Larry Achong, a former PNM elections officer. UNC MPs Gillian Lucky and Fuad Khan may have also set some thinking about integrity recently, while the crime situation and allegations against PNM have undoubtedly also aroused thought.

Several days of UNC headlines saw the spotlight spinning round to the PNM when—with leaders of both parties overseas—the UNC hit back with allegations of bribery from a PNM councillor against the Energy and Works Ministers. Damage control went awry Friday when Councillor Dansam Dhansook failed to show for a planned press briefing.

The Sealey Inquiry on the Tobago Hospital project may also begin hearings next month. But investigations may not colour Cabinet changes which the PNM source said are being contemplated. His explanation on this:

“There are recent signals from Prime Minister (Patrick) Manning he may be examining it more seriously in the context of streamlining the team to obtain heightened performance in the face of public service constraints which currently prevent this. It’ll all help prepare for the polls. Ministerial changes could materialise, around mid year if the leader decides.”

One of the signals, ministers note, is in Finance. On Thursday, checks with that ministry yielded confirmation that the Estate Business Development Company—handling Caroni matters—was removed from Junior Minister Christine Sahadeo’s Corporation Sole portfolio and shifted to her colleague, Conrad Enill. A Government spokesman also confirmed Manning asked Enill to handle the portfolio until his return, following which it’s expected Manning will address EBDC’s board.

The source said dissatisfaction about handling of certain issues could “very well” see Sahadeo being shifted to “strengthen” Christine Kangaloo’s Social Services Ministry.

Sahadeo took a hard line recently when UNC MP Robin Montano, in the Senate recently, produced letters from persons alleging sexual harassment by a top EBDC official.

The source said there was also concern over a “misunderstanding” between Sahadeo’s division and the University of T&T project supervised by PNM jefé Dr Ken Julien, a frequent Whitehall visitor (as journalists attending briefings notice).

UTT was asked to report to the Finance Ministry on a million-dollar sum in sync with rules that Finance must vet on certain such matters including tendering. When UTT didn’t meet that condition, the source explained, a letter was written calling UTT (and Julien) to book.

Officials from UTT’s line ministry downplayed the issue Friday: “It was routine letter to all divisions but Finance didn’t have to be involved since UTT isn’t a revenue generating company, but a non-profit school organisation.”

UTT received additional funding over the already allocated $600 million, Thursday’s media briefing revealed.

Thirdly, a Whitehall aide claimed: “FCB chairman Ken Gordon resigned citing Sahadeo’s interference last year. Handling poverty alleviation plans in social development may round off her sharp boardroom expertise with practice in a more people-centric area.”

Ministers also noted that Foreign Affairs Minister Knowlson Gift (nor Ken Valley) accompanied Manning on his trip although this involved lobbying FTAA support, which both ministers are involved in.

“Foreign Affairs was asked to clear up certain issues when Manning returns,” one source explained. “But the ministry may also require a more dynamic style. Tourism Minister Howard Chin Lee, now handling a similar portfolio, may fit the bill.”

There’s speculation changes could see Gift shifted to a lower-key ministry like Science, Technology and Tertiary Education while Colm Imbert handles “something more challenging,” the official said.

“Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis is also languishing and may have to play a bigger role possibly in the Attorney General’s division,” he added, denying AG John Jeremie went to the US this week to investigate a cancer problem.

“If Jeremie’s moved it may be because he’s more of a technocrat than political animal” was the official’s rationale. “As for National Security, nobody can replace Martin and replacing him would confirm admission failure on the crime fight.”

However, the source admitted Manning may be in a bind to implement changes, especially where Keith Rowley, Franklin Khan and Eric Williams are concerned since this may signal dissatisfaction with them and could lend to the perception of guilt on allegations against them.

Changes are also inevitable in the UNC. The investigating team on the Lucky issue has set no deadline. The party is observing both MPs’ behaviour in Parliament . Both were absent for Friday’s UNC’s day in Parliament—private members day.

The party is also rallying core support as Monday night’s Orange Valley meeting was obviously meant. Speakers dealt peripherally with the rift, denying it.

“If only half of UNC MPs face the polls we’ll still win,” projected MP Kelvin Ramnath. “Not that I’m saying any are leaving,” he added.

Panday, moving on the recent re-appearance of Ramesh Maharaj, reminded members of Maharaj’s “betrayal” and its “non-effect” on the UNC reinforcing his denials.

If the PNM administration is depending as heavily on weaknesses or other Opposition failings to help choose an election date, as some PNM officials believe, then the UNC indeed holds the power on several counts. (And a tad more, after the corruption allegations against the PNM.)

Although the UNC issue played political second fiddle to the PNM’s this week, UNC officials said they’re aware of how precarious the rift matter is.

Ultimately, the investigating team’s work may not only determine Lucky and Khan’s political future and whether it’s with the UNC or otherwise, but also the future of the UNC and its leader.

Panday’s verbage on the issue reinforces the view that the UNC, at its crossroads, has arrived there suddenly on the back of a fight the party must have known was inevitable given its leadership: the ages-old, sad conflicting ideologies of Young Turks and old warriors.

If reconciliation fails, it may signal the end of the line not only for Lucky and Khan but also for investigating team members Winston Dookeran and Gerry Yetming who’ve spearheaded the push for reconciliation, officials confirm.

So far they’ve kept silent on their own concerns about the party and have gone along measuring the current issue and Panday’s responses.

But Panday’s pointed remark on Monday that “they want to come in we house and say who must lead us” left no one in the UNC wondering to whom this was directed.

One MP said: “Fuad Khan especially is baiting expulsion saying he’s going to be striking out.”

On Monday, PNM San Juan officials confirmed they’ve been seeking a meeting with Khan.

On Tuesday, when asked about other options if expelled, Khan said he wasn’t entertaining approaches and is awaiting UNC’s action.

MPs hope the situation doesn’t reach breaking point—when they believe the PNM may sound the election bell—but instead makes the transition the party needs.They’re aware of the repercussions of expelling Lucky and Khan, including those who may woo them.

The party is brushing off, for instance, Ramesh Maharaj (whose return Khan once lobbied for) and his targeting of UNC members.

But there are also mixed signals from the entity with which Maharaj is working. After NAR leader Lennox Sankersingh conceded in February that NAR cannot “go it alone,” he began lobbying Maharaj and others to form what Sankersingh said is “another 1986 NAR.” Sankersingh was tight-lipped when he spoke then, but a couple days later Maharaj spoke at length about “his party,” projecting readiness by August.

Sankersingh on Monday admitted he was unaware of Maharaj’s statements. He said he and Maharaj hadn’t communicated since Maharaj was in court. He said the parties still have to work out a “democratic footing” among themselves.

Maharaj said he isn’t in peace talks with the UNC, but Sankersingh said: “We’re keeping ourselves open to work with everyone. We haven’t spoken formally to UNC groups. But I’ve spoken informally with UNC people. We definitely want to speak with Panday, but those are among things we must discuss among ourselves.”

Sankersingh expects Bill Chaitan to be part of the entity. Chaitan said in March his new party should be ready by August and had denied any involvement with Maharaj. He didn’t return calls Tuesday.


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