Editorial | Revisioning the PNP’s chairmanship
Peter Phillips, the leader of the People's National Party (PNP), is no doubt right in his characterisation of Robert Pickersgill, who has just retired as the party's chairman: that he exemplifies unswerving commitment to the party.
But as likeable a person as Mr Pickersgill is, what will resonate is Dr Phillips' claim that the PNP was "fortunate to have someone like him". That assessment would have brooked no opposition if Dr Phillips' reference was merely to Mr Pickersgill's personality. He, however, spoke in the context of Mr Pickersgill's quarter-century hold on the chairmanship, and, presumably, how he performed the job.
Why this is important is the signal it may send of what he expects of the new chairman, and of his own leadership. In that event, the statement wouldn't inspire confidence.
To be fair to Dr Phillips and to Mr Pickersgill, the chairmanship of the People's National Party is not an office that, on the face of it, presumes substantial authority to the holder. His role, under Rule 167 of the party's constitution, is to preside over the annual conference and at meetings of the National Executive Council.
Some will interpret this to mean that the chairman calls the meetings to order, ensures that the agenda is followed, and that things flow smoothly. Indeed, under Robert Pickersgill, from 1992 until last Sunday, the PNP's chairmanship was an antiseptically inoffensive position. There was not the sense that authority resided with the chairman; that it was a position from which ideas were generated, or that it, in its own right, either encouraged or facilitated debate.
Of course, an office usually resembles the character, personality, intellect and/or ambition of the person who holds it. In that regard, there are possibilities for a deeper and wider de jure and de facto interpretation of the post than Mr Pickersgill cared to imagine or dared to exercise.
For instance, the skill with which a chairman exercises his prerogative will help to shape the outcome of discussions. In the circumstance of a political party, this is a potentially great asset to a leader with whom the chairman is allied; or to the chairman himself if he has higher ambitions or pretends to king-making. Moreover, in the case of the PNP, the chairman, at meetings over which he presides, has both an original and a casting vote, which the leader is denied.
A political model of what the PNP's chairmanship can be was provided by Mr Pickersgill's predecessor, P.J. Patterson. After his parliamentary defeat in 1980 and his difficulty holding lesser party posts, Mr Patterson went into a two-year hiatus before roaring back to the chairmanship in 1983.
The post provided a platform in which he could dominate discourse in the party, second only to the leader, Michael Manley, as well as create the perception of himself as Mr Manley's inevitable successor. At Mr Manley's retirement nearly a decade later, Mr Patterson had built up sufficient momentum to ensure a relatively easy win of the presidency, notwithstanding a hitch that briefly cost him his seat in the Cabinet.
Fitz Jackson, Mr Pickersgill's successor, has declared no intention for the top job, but perchance there is such an ambition, he has a bully pulpit from which to establish his bona fides without it being a vulgar mission of self-assertion. For in that post, he can help the leader, if that is the PNP's remit, articulate a vision of renewal and of the big ideas that Jamaicans want to hear and embrace.