Madam Prime Minister, persuade us that you really care

Raulstom Nembhard

Saturday, September 22, 2012

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The prime minister's address at the 74th Annual Conference of the party was short on specifics as to how the country's economy can be put on a path of sustained growth. In a sense this was to be expected, for without an agreement with the IMF everything is on hold. She tried her best to put on as good a show and a face as she could, but even her ability at showmanship could not mask the overwhelming feeling of dejection which seemed to flow from an inner acknowledgement of the tremendous tasks before her. In a country of rising poverty and unrealistic expectations, people are looking to her to make precise predictions and prescriptions regarding the future of the country, but the stars seem not to be aligned in her favour. The crystal ball is broken.

At times one cannot help but feel a tinge of sorrow for the prime minister. She came to office riding on a tidal wave of people power. She had to be conscious that this time around she was on a real legacy road and that whatever she said or did in office would define her and her contribution to Jamaica for posterity. It is hardly likely that she will have another bat at the wicket, and it is even doubtful whether she will survive this first term of her own mandate. There is no doubt in my mind that the prime minister means well. But meaning well and acting well are two different sides of a coin, if one is not prepared to take the hard and bold decisions that critical junctures in history demand. It has to be utterly frustrating to be faced with the kind of intractable problems that abound in this nation and with the very little time frame to make a meaningful departure from the scene when the time comes. I am sure there are times she wished she could wave a magic wand and the problems would disappear overnight.

But there are things that the prime minister can do to salvage her image. She can begin with an honest listening to her own heart so that to herself she can be true. She may not be able to turn around the tribal, dishonest political culture that has been a defining feature of our politics since independence. It is like turning around the Titanic in mid-ocean; no one expects this prime minister, or any other for that matter, to do this. But recognising the awesome power that inheres in a Jamaican prime minister, she can start the soul-searching that will usher into a determination to begin the shift in the status quo. Part of that shift is a fulsome grasp of the need to chart a new course of governance for the country. Part of this new course is recognition of the deep need for openness and transparency in transacting the people's business. People expect her to speak to them, not all the time since this could become quite boring, but at least sufficiently to give them the assurance that the head of government in a time of crisis is at least aware of the graver characteristics of that crisis and can indeed do something about them. This is the nature of the "presidential" politics that we have nurtured over the years.

Finance Minister Peter Phillips could talk until he is blue in the face, but if no word is heard from the prime minister, there will be charges of the PNP running a rudderless ship. It is not enough to say that you delegate authority to your ministers and thus allow them to speak. You are in charge, Madam Prime Minister, and we need to feel your presence.

Whenever I hold on to some optimism that the PM can rise to the occasion and chart a new course for the country, some readers suggest that she is too wedded to and steeped in the politics of the past to change; that, as the saying goes, you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. It is true that since her rise to high office she has made some decisions which indicate a desire to preserve the status quo. We have seen this in her appointment of party functionaries and supporters to key positions in the public service and in appointing a large Cabinet in a time of grave austerity. But she is the only PM we have and she is the PM of all Jamaica. Unlike US presidential candidate Mitt Romney, she cannot afford to alienate 47 per cent of the people. In her political calculus, she cannot say that they are lost to her and so her job is not to worry about them. Her failure so far is her inability to help everyone to really understand that her professed care and concern for the poor, the marginalised and downtrodden is more than just rhetoric. And more than any other person in Jamaica at this time, she has the advantage of the bully pulpit and huge powers of persuasion. Might I hope that she can use these powers to convene urgently a summit of civil society, the church, the opposition and the private sector to grapple with the crisis the country faces and see if we can have a memorandum of understanding of a way forward. Even within the limited scope of the Westminster system, can we have a national consensus of survivorship? The emerging contretemps between Phillips and the indefatigable Shaw is not the way to go. Cool it, gentlemen, you are not sounding good, and we are not interested in your blame game.




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