Columns

Whither the PNP and visionary leadership

Dr Canute Thompson

Sunday, August 06, 2017

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Countries need organised, strong, and convincing Opposition parties in order to keep the Government on its toes. In the absence of a vibrant opposition a governing party is likely to abuse power, unless it is guided by a strong moral compass.

There is much that the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) has done that would lead to anxiety that there is the threat of abuse of power. Some of the actions that lead me to that conclusion include the removal of several non-political appointees from office and their replacement, in many cases, with self-evidently political hacks. Even more sinister has been the use of massive amounts of State funds in the midst of an election in a manner that raises serious questions about probity and ethics, as the report of the Office of the Contractor General has found.

In the face of those and other actions, and given the extent to which they may be harbingers of more serious acts of abuse of power, the country needs a strong parliamentary opposition (as well as vocal and critical church leaders and media practitioners) which is able and willing to speak and act in such a manner that will cause the Government to pause and take note and, from time to time, change course.

Peter Phillips's leadership

When it became clear that Dr Peter Phillips would be the successor to Portia Simpson Miller I expressed confidence that the People's National Party (PNP) would be able to re-package and re-position itself as a more credible alternative to the Government. This expectation was based on a number of considerations, including:

(a) the fact that Dr Phillips had twice, unsuccessfully, vied for the position of party president, which meant that he was confident that he was bringing something to the office of president that would make the party stronger;

(b) the intellectual capacity he possesses, evidenced in the manner in which he led the restoration of the Jamaican economy between 2012 and 2016;

(c) his years of experience as a political operative; and

(d) the sense I had that the PNP had hit rock bottom after the shock defeat it suffered in the 2016 General Election, and that it has no place to go but up.

Based on what is known publicly I am not of the view that Dr Phillips has so far lived up to the expectations. It is either that he knows and is doing things the public does not know, or he is yet to find form. The approach being taken by the Opposition leader to the task seems to lack a sense of urgency, which may be likened to that of a batsman in a 20/20 cricket match batting as if he is playing a five-day Test match. Though his age should not be an issue, it could become an issue unless he begins to put runs on the board. And the longer he stays at the crease without putting runs on the board the more comfortable the Government will become and the more the country is likely to suffer because of the absence of a strong Opposition.

Priorities

Dr Phillips had stated at the outset of his presidency that he would not be focusing his efforts on hounding the Government out of power, rather he would be focused on rebuilding the party. This was a false and misguided binary choice. The party ought to have focused on both rebuilding as well as operating in a manner that makes it a threat to the Government's ability to retain power — if it refuses to do the right things.

The very notion that an Opposition party can assume the posture of not focusing on displacing the government is, in my view, a misconstruction of the role of the Opposition. An Opposition party needs to convey that its contrasts the Government, both in its ability to connect with people and its command of the issues facing the country.

The extent to which the Phillips has succeeded in rebuilding the image of the party is unclear, but some of what is seen leaves questions about his success. The party is still plagued by infighting — as was played out in the contest in the St Andrew South Western seat to replace former standard-bearer Portia Simpson Miller. In addition to infighting was the failure of the party to excite its base. It must be worrisome for the PNP that in a constituency represented by a former prime minister who served as its Member of Parliament for 40 years, neither of the candidates who sought to replace her was able to garner 50 per cent of the votes.

But it gets worse. The total number of votes shared between both candidates was about 60 per cent of the total delegates. It is apparent that the ascension of Phillips to the presidency has not lit fires of excitement about the future of the party — at least among the people of St Andrew South Western.

What's more, although having just a one-seat majority (though scoring a compelling victory in the general election) the Government is operating as though it has a comfortable margin and is anything but concerned about what the Opposition says or does. Unless the PNP steps up its game the Government will be more and more emboldened to do as it likes.

Connecting with the people

On the question of command of the issues, the PNP's Council of Spokespersons, while often vocal, does not force the Government to change direction. The party appears to lack the moral authority to gain traction among the people, or is not using the modern tools of mobilisation effectively.

That the PNP was not able to mobilise the people to protest the failure of the Government to keep its word in the imposition of $32 billion in taxes to fund an ineffective and ill-advised promise that has benefited only 78,000 people, but cost the entire country, says a lot about the connection of the people with the party.

The modern way of mobilisation is via social media, but compared to the JLP, the PNP is like an amateur.

Another area in which I believe the PNP is not connecting with the people is in its language. Let us take the “Land Reform Commission”, established by the Opposition leader, as an example. The very name of that commission is out of touch, even though the idea and intent are noble. In my assessment, the issue of property that concerns most Jamaicans, ages 24 - 44, is not land, but housing. Land Reform was a major issue in Jamaica in the 60s and 70s when agriculture was about having large tracks of land and the poor having access. But today, we have greenhouse technology and the vast majority of the population lives in city or town centres (Kingston, Spanish Town, Portmore, May Pen, Montego Bay, among others). The issue for them is not land, but rather housing. To be proposing an agenda such as land reform as a signature strategy reflects the extent to which the party is out of step with the needs of the majority. How about “Affordable Housing Commission”?

Yet another potent evidence of being out of touch is the infighting in the party. Instead of being consumed with how to serve the people, the party's operatives seem consumed with furthering their individual and clan agendas. The infighting may have been the reason the party lost the last general election. The infighting in St Elizabeth North Eastern, Trelawny Northern, and St Andrew East Rural was badly damaging to the party. Although the party comfortably won in two of the three seats, there is no telling how many Comrades may have been turned off in other constituencies that the party lost.

The infighting was again potent in St Andrew South Western and the decision of the party to change the rules at the last minute to allow for the entry of the eventual winner is likely to serve to undermine confidence in the party's processes and perpetuate the infighting. The PNP is doing itself and Jamaica a disservice.

Vision needed

But while infighting continues to bedevil the PNP, its biggest failure, in my view, has been its less than impressive leadership and its failure to articulate a compelling vision for Jamaica. If the party is to be given a second thought (by the majority of voters), and another chance at Government, it must speak and act so that it stands out in the minds of citizens. People need to know what the party believes and what it will do to advance the good of the country. That message needs to be clear and easily communicated. That message must be repeatedly conveyed even if citizens are prepared to give the Government time to err and recover.

The PNP's chances at regaining State power will ultimately be as good as the extent to which the party is perceived to represent an attractive alternative. This is not to suggest that the PNP has a right to rule Jamaica, but it is in the interest of the country that the Government keeps on its mind that if it slips it could be out of power because of the presence of an Opposition that is holding it accountable. It would be interesting if a poll were done seeking to ascertain what people know about that which the PNP stands and what it believes. I would bet that the majority of respondents would not have a clue. The PNP must show urgency, selflessness, and visionary leadership for Jamaica's sake.

Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of three books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.

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