Fri | Sep 22, 2017

Ian Boyne: Portia and the two Peters

Published:Sunday | April 10, 2016 | 4:00 AM
Peter Bunting has declared his interest in becoming successor to Portia Simpson Miller as party president.
Cartoon for Tuesday, April 5, 2016: Portia Simpson Miller, Lisa Hanna, Paul Burke
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Any attempt by Peter Bunting to challenge Portia Simpson Miller for the leadership of the People's National Party (PNP) must be classified as a suicide mission. And one with serious casualties and collateral damage.

I am not sure whether there is a late recognition of that fact why he said this past week that she should "determine her own timetable" of departure, while announcing that "at the appropriate time I intend to offer myself to the delegates". Will he wait for her timetable before offering himself, or will he offer himself as a lamb to the slaughter? It is his choice.

My esteemed colleague, Cliff Hughes, nurtures the hope that Peter Bunting could possibly beat Mrs Simpson Miller, and that "the ground is shifting" with the delegates. He said that on his Nationwide at Five programme in response to my view that the delegates would not be merciful to any challenger to Portia. I told him that Peter Bunting has no chance against her on the conference floor in September and that while Cliff and the articulate minority might be fed up with Portia and question her capacity, they don't get to elect the president of the PNP. "But the delegates want their party to be in power," he retorted, obviously holding the view they know the Jamaican electorate doesn't want Portia.

They certainly rejected her the last time around and there are those in her own party who believe she is a spent force and has become unelectable. Some are even beginning to compare her to Eddie Seaga, saying she is to Andrew Holness what Seaga was to P.J. Patterson: a gift.

Hence the Bunting announcement, Lisa Hanna's agitation, and the eagerness to have General Secretary Paul Burke out of the secretariat, though the man has already announced he is going after conference. But, no, there is this haste to get him out now, as he is still seen as a Portia loyalist who can't be trusted with delegates' lists and the administration of a leadership contest.

The dilemma Portia critics in the party face is that though Portia might be unpopular among large numbers most likely to vote in a general election, among those voting at a party conference, she is their favourite. Anyone wanting to challenge Andrew Michael Holness will first have to get past a going-nowhere-now Portia Simpson Miller.

Why the haste to get out Portia now? The JLP has just gone into office. The party has five years constitutionally. Understand the thinking of the 'renewal now' faction. There is the local government election coming up. They don't want a bad defeat, which they think Portia's leadership will hand to them. If there is even the hope she might be out soon, it is felt, some will vote for the party with a view to renewal.

Besides, with this razor-thin victory by the JLP, any number can play. In their thinking, this administration might not last long and Andrew himself has said there is no margin for error. The PNP could be back in power soon if we have an electable, preferably young, leader, some Comrades are thinking. They are not about to wait on Portia to take her time to decide to leave. They are giving her the nudge and are prepared to give the push, if necessary.

As Peter Bunting says, he prefers her to determine her own schedule of departure but (unsaid) if she does not, he might have to move from the ideal to realpolitik. This 'capacity' issue is raring its head again, as it did in that last Portia-Phillips contest. It's more subtle this time. Lisa Hanna, in her Dear Comrades missive, exudes about rushing home in her schoolgirl days to hear Comrade Leader Michael Manley. "Gordon House showcased an elegance with wit and formidable debate." The PNP then was "the party of ideas ...". Then.

Long-time Comrade and former government minister under Michael Manley and one of the party's thinkers, Arnold 'Scree' Bertram, writing in this newspaper last Sunday('Time to renew PNP'), says bluntly: "The withdrawal of the intelligentsia, organised labour and the professional organisations from the ranks of the party has left a gap that the unemployed and lumpen cannot fill." He says, "The absence of rigorous policy discussions among the leadership of the PNP was apparent during the 2016 election campaign ... . As a consequence, the PNP's campaign was substantially reduced to a series of carnivals." Ouch!

The man known as one of the ideologues of the party and a first-rate political historian has some advice for the PNP: "As the PNP faces the challenge of renewal, it would be useful for the party to remind itself of the kind of leadership and the social profile of the party base that carried it to the successes of its early years." That leadership was solidly middle class and intellectual.

There are Comrades blaming Portia for their electoral loss and saying if they had a leader who was formidable in debate, there would have been a debate with Andrew Holness, and not the considerable electoral fallout from not debating. Comrades are expressing no doubt that Peter Philips would have beaten Andrew Holness in a debate had he been leader. And they are also privately saying that journalists would not be constantly telling them that their leader had not been talking to the press if their leader was not Portia. So in their view, some key reasons why the electorate was turned off from the PNP had to do with its leader and her perceived inadequacies. That is what these renewal Comrades now want to fix.

Portia defenders will say this is class - and even gender - prejudice. It's the bourgeoisie wanting to wrest back power in a party in which it traditionally exercised dominance. Portia is the poor girl from Wood Hall who made it to Jamaica House, and some have never got over that. Lisa complains in her letter to Comrades that "the courage that once epitomised the movement has been replaced by fear from being bludgeoned into submission from having an independent view". Lisa knows it's not child's play to oppose the party leader. She knows the loyalty to Portia among grass-roots Comrades and some key party functionaries is almost cultic.

Lisa feels the party's "leadership must evolve with the times and the people we represent". That's why some want Peter Bunting - and not Portia or Peter Phillips. Bunting is the ageist's answer to Andrew Holness. He is young, prosperous, avant-garde, bright, amiable and consensus-building. I think Peter Bunting would be a good leader of the PNP. He is one of the politicians I can discuss books and ideas with and he is a spiritual person who would have an appeal to religious people.

Peter Bunting is a strategic thinker and takes a holistic approach to development. But I also believe Peter Phillips would be a good leader of the party and should not be dismissed because of his age or the fact that he ran such a disastrous and crappy electoral campaign. Peter was an outstanding finance minister and a courageous leader who steered this country on a path of fiscal prudence that has stood this Holness administration in good stead.

Last week, as I contemplated the Panama Papers and how Peter's work, along with Mark Golding's, over the last few four years prepared us legislatively to avoid some of the pitfalls identified in those papers, I saw again the debt this country owes this man. Peter is eminently qualified to lead this country. The two Peters are excellent candidates as successor to Portia. Phillips, of course, remains the frontrunner if he should decide to offer himself after a vacancy.

But a democratic party cannot be hostile to a leadership challenge. Only a personality cult would be. Powerful Region Three chairman and Portia loyalist, Phillip Paulwell, has declared his backing of Phillips when there is a vacancy. If Bunting challenges Portia, he will damage his future chances of leading the party. If Phillips declines leadership, Bunting will need the political capital to beat Julian Robinson. He must not squander that by any suicide mission in September.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ianboyne1@yahoo.com.