Cabinet Minister Tara Rivers defended herself on Tuesday against charges of wasteful spending and unnecessary travel to last week’s Commonwealth Conference in South Africa, saying the gathering had boosted her insight into local issues.
In a four-page, nearly 1,500-word statement issued Tuesday, Ms Rivers said she had attended the 59th Commonwealth Parliamentarians Conference between Aug. 28 and Sept. 6 in Johannesburg “as an official delegate from the Cayman Islands.”
Her activities “included attendance at the Small Branches Conference and the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarian conference,” which, the statement said, “better equipped her to tackle the many issues and subject areas for which she has responsibility.”
Minister Rivers, elected one of four West Bay representatives on May 22 and appointed by minister of education, employment and gender affairs by Cayman Islands Premier Alden McLaughlin on May 28, missed the session of the Legislative Assembly on 4 Sept., the first substantive meeting of the House since the election.
She returned on Sept. 6, also missing the ceremonial greeting and inauguration of new Cayman Islands Governor Helen Kilpatrick.
The Tuesday statement quoted Ms Rivers as saying her participation at the conference “was an absolutely worthwhile and directly beneficial experience,” and that many of the sessions and discussions “centered around the concerns of education, employment and gender affairs.”
“The ability to share ideas and experiences as parliamentarians and the networking opportunities which facilitates further exchange of information was extremely helpful,” she said.
Cayman’s three-member delegation, which left Cayman on Aug. 26, comprised Ms Rivers, Speaker of the House Juliana O’Connor-Connolly and former Premier McKeeva Bush, now opposition leader.
During the conference, according to the press release, Ms Rivers learned that, “like the Cayman Islands, the States of Jersey also has a growing unemployment problem,” registering almost 2,000 out-of-work people, roughly comparable to local rates.
The problem, she said, “has caused the Jersey government to take quick and decisive action,” spending £19 million in “back to work” and other programs.
“Minister Rivers made it a point to follow up with the delegate from Jersey to obtain more detailed information,” the statement said, enabling her “to come away with some examples of concrete solutions being implemented in jurisdictions that are similar to Cayman,” helping “guide me in developing similar programs for the unemployed persons here in the Cayman Islands.
“It also provides me with a better appreciation of how many resources, financial and otherwise, have been dedicated to tackling the issue of unemployment in other jurisdictions similar to ours,” she said.
The release claimed Ms Rivers had “a strong history of attending overseas conferences and implementing solutions locally,” but cited only a 1990s gathering in Dominica, discussing national policies on youth, and leading to Cayman’s 2000 National Youth Policy, the first in the Caribbean, she said.
Citing the National Workforce Development Agency’s long-standing apprentice scheme, she said she had learned in Johannesburg that Jersey boasted a similar program “from which we can learn and review.”
She defended the trip as an integral part of her responsibilities: “As a minister I expect to operate no differently – my participation at overseas workshops and conferences aimed at parliamentarians and ministers will be used to help facilitate the development of policies and programs locally. Our country is simply in no position to lose out by not being at the table,” she said.
The most controversial part of the statement came when she alleged sexism by local media, claiming they had discriminated against her.
She accused local media of creating a “tempest in a teacup” describing the “unfortunate coincidence” that among her discussions “was the discriminatory way in which women parliamentarians are often treated by the media.”
“Discrimination against women in any and all forms is unacceptable and should not be perpetuated in the media or otherwise,” she said, but did not name an example.
Decrying “hasty and ill-informed reporting”, she said she was disappointed in “a salacious story … fueled from a one-sided, ill-informed perspective,” pointing to “obvious haste” and an “unreasonable time frame” to answer questions.
Prior to querying Ms Rivers, the Compass approached the Office of the Premier, Deputy Chief Officer for Education Mary Rodrigues, Acting Minister for Education Winston Connolly and the Legislative Department, which sponsored the delegation, to garner information for a story published Friday, Sept. 6 on the minister’s trip.
Five questions submitted at 11 a.m. Thursday to Ms Rodrigues, drew a noon response: “Thanks for the email. I am out of office but will have someone respond with the details later today.”
None of the entities answered any question, generating charges of administration “silence.”
Meanwhile, the statement said, “the Minister was diligently attending the conference and representing the Cayman Islands’ experience through her many contributions to the discussions throughout the week.
“She felt that it was a positive and enlightening experience from which she and the country will greatly benefit in her more informed role and capacity as minister of education, employment and gender affairs.”