Sat | Sep 23, 2017

Ian Boyne | Portia bows out blazing

Published:Sunday | March 19, 2017 | 3:00 AM
Ian Boyne

The seasoned warrior of the working class had to fight for her place in the Budget speaking line-up as some of her own Comrades were lobbying for her to tek weh herself and yield to Peter Phillips to make his grand appearance in this Budget Debate as opposition leader.

Dickie Crawford, who worked closely with Portia mentor Michael Manley as well as with Portia herself, publicly said that she should give Peter the opportunity to shine as opposition leader, setting out his vision for the country as he takes over the party's leadership. Nationwide reported that the fiery public commentator and incisive political observer Dr Paul Ashley and I 'clashed' over this issue, with me sharply disagreeing with his view that Portia should not speak in this Budget Debate.

Peter Phillips, who has played his cards deftly throughout this whole leadership succession contest and who has stamped his political class indelibly, came out publicly to dissociate himself from those ostensibly speaking in his favour. No one who heard Portia Simpson Miller on Thursday has an iota of doubt that it was good for her to be there.

Declaring herself the nine-star general, the South West St Andrew Member of Parliament came out blazing in Gordon House last week, taking no prisoners. The Government had handed her the perfect gift for her farewell: an onerous, vexing, and deeply unpopular tax package that gave her the perfect platform to remind us why she was Mama P to so many.

Delivering a blistering, tendentious attack on the Government, Portia ripped open her tax package 'gift' with ecstatic delight, firing salvo after salvo at the Andrew Holness regime.

Quoting Bounty Killer, who said a few nights ago that "Dem a gi wi 1.5 tax cut, but dem tek it back with two han," she quickly disclaimed, with lyrical delight, "A nuh me seh suh. A Bounty seh suh."

"Poor people fed up," she intoned, echoing a popular Bounty song.

 

THE PEOPLE'S CHAMPION

 

Portia went out in her finale as opposition leader speaking in a Budget Debate just the way she would have liked: cementing her brand as the poor people's champion, vanguard of the working class, tireless fighter for social justice. And as I had told Dr Ashley she would do, she recited her major achievements in politics and left Hansard with a record of her impact on the Jamaican political state. Portia was not going to walk off into any sunset without grasping this final opportunity to reply to her naysayers who question her capacity and accomplishments.

Sadly for her, it is not just Labourites whom she had to address, but some of her own Comrades some of them sitting right there with her in Parliament. It was an unmistakable indication of the level of warmth that she has generated over the years that she was so hard-hitting, so polemical, even incendiary, and yet Jamaica Labour Party MPs and ministers were smiling afterwards, saying that she had delivered a good speech. Her arch-critic in media, Cliff Hughes, said that she seemed relaxed and not bitter about leaving, and he did not have one negative to thing to say about her on Thursday evening.

Hers was a masterfully written speech, well delivered. In setting the record straight, Simpson Miller was careful to note that a number of persons 'naysayers' feared that she was so populist that she would endanger the neo-liberal International Monetary Fund programme. They give all the credit to Peter Phillips, casting her as a mere bystander.

But on Thursday, Portia claimed all those accolades and positioned herself as a responsible, prudent political leader who had the courage to take tough economic decisions. "I was described as too populist. Many said I did not have the guts to implement the tough measures required to fix Jamaica's economy. They said I would not use my political capital. Well, we proved the naysayers wrong." In fact, Portia painted herself as a messiah, delivering Jamaica from the economic apocalypse attendant to the JLP's abandoning the IMF programme.

When the PNP took over in January 2012, Simpson Miler told us: "Jamaica was on the edge of a precipice. Jamaica was hanging by a thread. Do you remember that no one would lend Jamaica money at affordable rates and that our foreign reserves were dwindling? Do you remember that investor confidence had dried up? Do you remember that we lacked the IMF seal of approval; which is a precondition for financing?" Well, she was not going to let us forget in her farewell.

When the PNP took over, "we were faced with an economy about to collapse. No support from multilateral partners. High and unsustainable levels of debt, mounting joblessness, and skyrocketing inflation". Then she recited the turnaround and how her administration navigated an IMF programme that changed things and restored the confidence of the international financial community. "We passed all

IMF quarterly tests. Eleven in all." But they lost the election. Perhaps because they passed so many IMF tests!

And the 1.5. You need to understand the deep anger of the PNP over this 1.5 plan. That was the final nail in its coffin. That was the magic elixir for the JLP. And it is small wonder that Peter Phillips, in his presentation on Tuesday, and Portia, on Thursday, spent so much time attacking that 'samfie' plan. Portia and Peter delivered well in terms of the demands of politics: They resonated with many angry and bitter Jamaicans over this tax package and they scored a lot of political points.

But after all the sound and fury, some questions remain. What if the JLP had not made any attempt to implement the 1.5 plan? Yes, the PNP would say that they have not really implemented the plan. They promised a 1.5 plan without additional taxation.

There are many people who are not Labourites or partisans and who, in fact, voted for the JLP, who are saying that they were tricked and that Holness deceived them. Don't believe that is just a PNP position. Go on the street and see whether people feel they are better off with the 1.5 tax break. Do your own informal poll. Ask them whether the tax relief outweighs what they perceive they are likely to pay through increased cost at the pumps, increased transportation, increased electricity, increased health insurance costs, etc.

Peter and Portia's invective last week has traction with many. But what would be the impact of the JLP's telling us after they won on that 1.5 platform that, sorry, we can't do it? We find out it is unaffordable. You talk about trust deficit now? You talk about the charge of samfie and three-card trick? There would be an indescribable sense of betrayal and anger. And I submit that ultimately, that would not just affect the JLP, but the PNP itself. More people, especially young people, would be turned off from politics, not trusting any politician. I don't think we have calculated the cost of not attempting to implement this 1.5 plan.

But there is an elephant in the room that no one is noticing. The reason why this tax package has had to be imposed and the reason why Peter Phillips himself had to impose that same $7 per litre gas tax (you forget that?) is because of that unusually high IMF surplus target.

 

UNITY

 

We are busy 'tracing' one another as partisans, not realising that we should be uniting to struggle against this high surplus demanded by the IMF and this rapid paydown of the debt. A big part of our Budget is for debt servicing. That is why both administrations have had to raid National Housing Trust resources and impose onerous, 'wicked' taxes.

Remember, Portia and Peter were voted out because people did not perceive that they were doing enough for them under their IMF programme. Peter had to impose $58 billion in taxes. (I said had to). Andrew is now facing his backlash because he is forced to serve us the same bitter medicine we ran from under the PNP. Whose fault is it that we thought we could avoid taking our medicine and that there was an easy way out of our economic sickness? We are suffering buyer's remorse now with this tax package.

Peace and prosperity to you, Portia.

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