Tue | Jul 16, 2019

Carolyn Cooper | Peter Phillips making Seaga’s mistake?

Published:Sunday | April 28, 2019 | 12:10 AM

On Easter Sunday, I went to Devon House with some friends from Canada, the US and Jamaica. As I observed the large number of people enjoying themselves, I made the point that this was one of Edward Seaga’s many visionary accomplishments. He saved the stately mansion from demolition and converted the property into a popular entertainment venue.

In an article published in the Sunday Observer on June 24, 2018, Seaga listed “all the achievements” in his political career, which, by his own calculation, came to more than 120. Proverbial wisdom warns that self-praise is no recommendation. In this instance, Seaga’s blowing of his own trumpet was provoked by Mark Wignall, who wrote an inflammatory article, ‘All things Seaga are controversial’, which was published in The Gleaner on June 14, 2018.

Seaga’s combative response was headlined ‘Where are the controversies in my career, Mr Wignall?’ He listed among his 120 accomplishments establishing the National Investment Bank of Jamaica; founding the Urban Development Corporation; conceiving Human Employment & Resource Training (HEART); creating Jamaica Festival; setting up the Creative Production and Training Centre; and challenging the proposal of the British government to lift sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Despite his stellar achievements, Seaga’s political fortunes eventually crashed like the Boeing 737 Max. Seaga was the leader of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) from 1974 until his retirement from politics in 2005. For over thirty years! After losing the 1989 general election, Seaga became leader of the opposition for more than a decade and a half.

The apparent assumption that only one don could lead the JLP seems to have contributed to Seaga’s downfall. He became the biggest asset of the ruling People’s National Party (PNP). As long as Seaga remained leader of the JLP, the PNP was confident that it would continue to win general elections.

THE ILLUSION OF POWER

I doubt very much that Edward Seaga would want to teach Peter Phillips any lessons about how to play the political game. But even without Seaga’s tutoring, Phillips ought to be able to learn from Seaga’s grave error: desperately hanging on to the illusion of power for far too long.

It is so economical to learn from other people’s mistakes. You observe the outcome of certain actions and you sensibly decide that there must be a viable alternative. But some self-centred souls prefer to be taught the hard way. They want to make their own mistakes. So they press along without any regard for the lessons they could learn from other people’s folly.

Peter Phillips’ political career is certainly not as illustrious as Seaga’s. I doubt very much that he could list 120 achievements. Admittedly, he has never been prime minister and so has not had Seaga’s opportunity to provide innovative leadership. The high point of Phillips’ career was his handling of negotiations with the International Monetary Fund while he was minister of finance. He took shame out of our eyes after Audley Shaw irresponsibly refused to honour the government’s obligations to the Fund.

Phillips’ outstanding accomplishment can take him only so far. After presiding over two recent defeats in by-elections, he does not appear to realise that it’s time to assess his capacity to lead the PNP into general elections. There’s a lot of speculation that, as soon as the drawn-out road expansion is completed, the JLP is going to call a snap election. Is Phillips ready for that?

DEFECTIVE VEHICLE

According to Paul Burke, former general secretary of the PNP, the problems in the party are far greater than the contested leadership of Peter Phillips. Burke is quoted in a Gleaner article published on April 7, 2019: “If you have a vehicle with four bad tyres, a little gas, faulty steering, poor shock absorbers, the driver will not make a difference … the vehicle is defective.”

Some analysts of the PNP’s losing performance in the 2016 general election put the blame squarely on Paul Burke, who seems to have failed to service the vehicle in preparation for the election road race. But even if the PNP vehicle is defective, a new driver could make a difference. First of all, the driver would recognise the need to overhaul the vehicle to make it roadworthy.

Second, a new driver would have to assess the efficiency of all the members of the team. If the election race was anything like a Grand Prix, a lot of experts would be needed to ensure top-class performance: for example, the engine specialist, tyre specialist, highly skilled engineers testing the technologies used in the car and, of course, the pit crew.

The current driver of the mash-up PNP does not seem to understand the complexity of the systems that need to be rebooted. Furthermore, charisma is an asset for a political leader. Peter Phillips has none of the appeal of legendary Jamaican politicians like Alexander Bustamante, Michael Manley or Portia Simpson Miller. He’s rather bland. If Phillips stubbornly continues to lead the PNP, he is going to suffer the same fate as Seaga. He will, undoubtedly, become the best asset for the other political party.

 

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com