What Peter Phillips must/mustn't say today...

Garfield Higgins

Sunday, September 16, 2018

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It is not changing into a lion that is hard, it is getting the tail of a lion. – Sierra Leone proverb

Fitz Jackson, chairman of the People's National Party (PNP), according to the Old Lady of North Street, is vowing that the PNP will “emerge from its 80th annual conference next weekend [today] a united force with clear indications as to where it would take Jamaica if it is elected to form the next Government”. (The Gleaner, September 6, 2018)

Jackson, in attempting to achieve his party's objectives, might want to take a little advice from Nobel Laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu: “Don't raise your voice, improve your argument.” Jackson and other Opposition spokespersons in the PNP have developed a penchant for shouting at the top of their voices, even when there are several amplification instruments inches away from their mouths. They apparently have bought into a false notion that the louder they shout the more people will believe what they say and act in their favour. People are smart; they know when your argument is weak, Jackson.

But that aside, Jackson also told the media that the PNP will outline its policies and programmes for Jamaica at today's conference. This is long overdue, because to date the country has not got any plan of action from the PNP on how it would do a better job than the Andrew Holness-led Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Administration.

Dr Peter Phillips, president of the PNP, says he has a plan to build a Jamaica that works for all Jamaica. I am anxious to hear the specifics of Phillips's plan, so I shall be listening keenly. I suspect I will be sorely disappointed. Why? The PNP formed the Government for 22 of the last 28 years. It's near catastrophic economic performance does not engender ready or even distant confidence. The PNP will doubtless say that international forces — as its officers term it — inveigh against the Michael Manley regime of the 70s, and that this caused the grand economic failure.

They are yet to invent a plausible narrative for the economic failure of the 90s. Recall that when the world economy and Caribbean economies grew on average between three per cent and five per cent, Jamaica's economy floundered. These growth statistics are unpleasant reminders of rank economic ineptitude: 1989 (7.0 per cent); 1990 (6.3 per cent); 1991 (0.5 per cent); 1992 (2.7 per cent); 1993 (2.2 per cent); 1994 (1.9 per cent); 1995 (2.5 per cent); 1996 (-0.2 per cent); 1997 (-1.6 per cent); 1998 (-1.0 per cent); 1999 (1.0 per cent); 2000 (0.9 per cent); 2001 (1.3 per cent); 2002 (1.0 per cent); 2003 (3.5 per cent); 2004 (1.4 per cent); 2005 (1.1 per cent); 2006 (3.0 per cent); and 2007 (1.4 per cent).

The growth figures for 2011 to 2015, the PNP's most recent turn at bat, also make for dismal reading. Dr Phillips, the de facto prime minister, near choked the economy almost to death: 2012 (-0.5 per cent); 2013 (0.2 per cent); 2014 (1.1 per cent); and 2015 (1.4 per cent). Phillips also imposed $58 billion in new taxes during his time as finance minister.

Smart people listening

I hope Dr Phillips does not come to the country today with the same ole, stale and empty democratic socialism rhetoric that made Jamaica into an economic laughing stock in the 70s and 90s. Phillips should know that a presentation, as we say in local parlance, 'cork with' wisecracks, bombast, loud music, threats, as well as assorted political trinkets and gimmickry, will almost certainly not get him any political 'forward' [kudos, support] beyond the walls of the National Arena and his pool of dwindling, but rabid supporters.

Like Black Uhuru sang, folks, see through the plastic smile in a jiffy: “Don't show I you teeth, plastic smile can't work.” 'Screw face' does not frighten significant numbers of people into political submission anymore either. Here I am taking slight liberties with the reggae king, Bob Marley. I believe that broad outlines and philosophising will only cause folks to turn off their radios, televisions, and whichever other media devices. They know when politicians on 'E' are trying to dupe them with self-saluting tactics. Jamaicans want to hear specific specifics: how, when, where, and why.

As I pointed out in a previous article some months ago: “There is a new and more discerning type of voter who is no longer concerned with who planted the tree. That is immaterial to them. They just want to know the tree is there. Their focus is who can maintain the shade and fertilise the tree to continually bear edible and 'pickable' fruit. This group of pragmatic voters is expanding fast.” ( Jamaica Observer, March 18, 2018)

Dr Phillips must tell us today how he will increase employment far beyond the present reality. More people are employed in Jamaica today than any other time since political independence. In May of this year the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) told us, among other things: “Jamaica's unemployment rate continued its downward trend to record 3.1 percentage points, lower than the rate recorded in January 2017.”

“Data provided by STATIN for the month of January 2018 showed that Jamaica's unemployment rate was 9.6 per cent — the lowest unemployment rate recorded since October 2007.” The number of Jamaicans employed increased by 22,600 people relative to January 2017. ( Jamaica Observer, May 23, 2018)

Since this Administration took two and half years ago it has created a little over 50,000 new jobs. Dr Phillips needs to provide credible answers on how the PNP would do a better job if it were elected in the next parliamentary election. Inflation is at its lowest in many years. Business and consumer confidence are at historic highs. Moody's international rating agency recently shifted its outlook on Jamaica from stable to positive. Last week the country got the good news that Jamaica was ranked 5th in the world in terms of ease of starting a business. Interest rates are low. Consumers can now shop around from one bank to another and negotiate better terms. Jamaica is meeting International Monetary Fund benchmarks with relative ease while not imposing brutal austerity upon the population. The country's debt is being paid down: “Jamaica's debt is steadily decreasing as a result of increased payments being made by the Government.” ( Jamaica Observer, August 16, 2018) How will the PNP do a vastly better job, Dr Phillips?

Old and new

There are those who say today's conference is about solidifying the base and should focus on little else. I disagree. That was the case 35 years ago. Today, Phillips is talking with, and hopefully not to, a national and global audience. I don't believe most Jamaicans are prepared to accommodate any more: 'bite the bullet', 'tighten belt', 'bitter medicine'; the usual political codes for more excruciating sacrifices ahead. Folks want to see opportunity in action. I get the sense that any political leader who comes with even a suggestion of biting austerity will be run out of town.

The economy continues to recover: “The Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) says the economy grew by an estimated 1.8 per cent for the April to June 2018 quarter, relative to the corresponding period last year.” ( Jamaica Observer, August 16, 2018)

Recall that, according to figures by the PIOJ, in 1971 the Jamaican economy grew by almost 12 per cent in that one single year. This is equivalent to the cumulative growth under Dr Omar Davies' entire 14 years as minister of finance between 1993 and 2007. Davies' high interest rate policy crippled local entrepreneurship. Some 45,000 small- and medium-sized businesses went under during the 1990s. Thousands of honest businessmen and women were ruined. Many have migrated. The association that represents Finsac'd entrepreneurs says 20 people committed suicide.

The PNP's record on economic growth is woeful. If Dr Phillips comes with the lazy line that the achievements of this Administration and benefits in the country are because of the previous Government, he will have missed another opportunity to begin to shed the bad-mind vest which he painted onto himself, in the run-up to the February 25, 2016 General Election.

Dr Phillips would do well to admit in his speech today, in unequivocal terms, that he and his party have made some dreadful mistakes, and that he has some serious regrets about his own political actions. I suggest that a good start is an unqualified apology for the sordid 1976 State of Emergency and the Green Bay Massacre in 1978. If he goes the route of saying he has only had the reins of the party presidency for a year and a half and tries to sell himself as a new political creature, minus a clear admission of his past failures and those of his party, he will have placed another nail in his political coffin.

The narrative being sold on social media by some of his handlers/surrogates that Phillips is new won't wash. A quick search reveals that Dr Phillips joined the PNP in 1989 and became a Member of Parliament in 1994. ( Sunday Observer, March 6, 2017) He has since held a series of high-level posts in the party; between 1995 and 1997 Phillips was the minister of health. He was transport and works minister from 1998 to October 2001. And from 2011 to 2016 he was minister of finance — and de facto prime minister. He is not new!

Crime trending down

Dr Phillips, Fitz Jackson and Peter Bunting have strenuously opposed the state of emergency and zones of special operations initiatives from the get-go. The last set of police statistics I saw showed the crime figures heading in the right direction — down. Murders are down by near 19.5 per cent, 219 fewer Jamaican citizens murdered this year compared to the similar period in 2017. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure that when there are improvements in law and order, people feel safer; this inspires greater productivity and investments. What new and better anti-crime fighting measures does the PNP have? Will I hear any, today, I rather doubt it.

Were Phillips to stick to what I believe is the PNP's political communication strategy of 'say something, anything, about everything' he would only be hastening his likely political funeral.

Respect, “Miss Lou”

The unveiling of the statue of Louise Bennett-Coverley in Gordon Town Square last week was a beautiful thing. Her invaluable contribution must always be cherished, especially in our hearts.

Jamaica's best days are ahead. I am betting on Jamaica, full stop!

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.— Harriet Tubman

Garfield Higgins is an educator; journalist; and advisor to the minister of education, youth and information. Send comments to the Observer or

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