stabroek news editorialvolda

Last Wednesday, this newspaper broke a story about APNU+AFC Local Government Election (LGE) candidate Mr Winston Harding, who had faced several accusations and charges of child sexual abuse. Mr Harding now has a seat on the council, by dint of garnering the majority of votes in his local authority area.

Mr Harding should resign/give up his seat with immediate effect, that is, before the council holds its first meeting. Really and truly, he did not ‘win’ it, although his name and likeness appeared on the ballot. A proper analysis of voting patterns around the entire country would bear out the fact that the majority of electors did not vote for individuals, but for the political parties to which they have given their loyalty. The residents of East and West Ruimveldt, just like everyone else, voted for the party of their choice.

It is even likely that they went ahead and marked their Xs on the basis of the commitment given by the APNU last week Wednesday that it had withdrawn its support for Mr Harding’s candidature.

When contacted on Sunday, after it was known that he had ‘won’ a seat on the council, Mr Harding, who seems to have lost his moral compass, said he would do whatever the party decided. Now, even if there wasn’t a cloud of child molestation accusations following Mr Harding around, his response makes him unsuitable councillor material. Clearly, for him, ‘what the party decides’ would trump what is best for the East and West Ruimveldt constituency. In any case, it would seem, based on its statement last week, that the party has already decided. Is Mr Harding hoping that the party will change its mind?

Before publishing the information it had gathered, this newspaper made contact with Minister Volda Lawrence, who was in charge of the coalition’s Georgetown campaign, and also holds stewardship of the Ministry of Social Protection, which has child protection as one of its mandates. When told of the allegations that had been made against Mr Harding, including the rebranding of his campaign posters with the words “child molester”, Minister Lawrence sought to shrug it off as “a family issue.” She then said, “…If I had a brother, even if there was an accusation, this is not how I would go about helping him.”

She further said, “Do you think that [I], the minister in charge of that [social protection], would have someone like that running? Do you think that the party would expose itself like that? We are aware of the situation but he was never charged.”

Yes, Minister Lawrence was aware of the situation. In fact, according to Mr Harding’s sister, Ms Sharon Harding, Ms Lawrence visited her at her home. And when Ms Harding insisted that she was advocating for the children who had accused her brother, Ms Lawrence reportedly asked her to desist, since Mr Harding had “worked hard for the party” and needed to be rewarded.

Why was Minister Lawrence so determined to support Mr Harding’s candidature in the face of the allegations? There are three possibilities here. (1) Mr Harding lied to his campaign manager, Minister Lawrence regarding the allegations against him. (2) The Minister did not do her homework with regard to Mr Harding. (3) The answers to both of the Minister’s rhetorical questions above are, yes.

Ms Lawrence has bungled this badly, along with displaying a callous approach to what are very serious allegations. The complaints had been investigated and the police had found enough evidence to charge Mr Harding, not once, but at least three times. He was never convicted because on one occasion, the virtual complainant was prevented from testifying against him and on another, the statement disappeared; such situations are quite different from being found not guilty based on the evidence, or lack of it, presented in court.

It might be time for the government to relieve Ms Lawrence of the Social Protection Ministry portfolio. It is clear that she does not possess the empathy required to run a people-centred government agency, though as a politician she might have other skills.

But before she goes, Ms Lawrence should answer a few questions. In addition to the rhetorical ones she herself posed, she should tell the nation how she would help her brother, if she had one, and he had been accused of and charged with child molestation. Ms Lawrence should also say how she plans to help children who are being molested but are afraid to speak up because they believe doing so would bring about discord in their families or cause embarrassment to their families or because they might be blamed and in turn accused of being promiscuous.