Fri | Sep 22, 2017

Ian Boyne | Peter at the Pearly Gates?

Published:Sunday | April 2, 2017 | 4:00 AM

The stars seem to be perfectly aligned with Peter David Phillips. Eleven years after he first sought the presidency of the People's National Party (PNP), the hour has finally come. At a most opportune time.

He is opposing a Government that is experiencing a significant backlash against its tax policies, with things taking a turn for the worse - but better for Peter - last week as the propertied class - which includes an articulate minority - was stunned with the revelation of astronomical tax increases. You can mess with poor people and get away sometimes, but if you go too far with the middle class and the propertied, you are certain to be in serious trouble. You either have to make concessions to them or you begin your terminal countdown.

Peter Phillips is a political scientist who, in his academic life, studied elite behaviour. I still have my old, rusty copy of Essays on Power and Change in Jamaica edited by Carl Stone and Aggrey Brown and published in January 1976. Peter's is the first essay, 'Jamaican Elites: 1938 to Present', in that volume.

In his acceptance speech last Sunday, he harked back to his radical days, recalling that it was Michael Manley who lit the fire in his stomach for the PNP and progressive politics. "They can try to vilify him all they want, but I say without reservation that Michael Manley broke down the walls of the old plantation society once and for all in Jamaica."

He talked proudly about standing with radical Black Power advocate Walter Rodney.

His political opponents will draw on his history to show how archaic he is, that he is really out of tune with modern realities and that he is just an aged socialist. Indeed, Audley Shaw, one of the most colourful platform speakers, already dubbed him merely a new driver of the same old, bruk-dung PNP bus. But Audley had better keep in mind that this new driver is seen as bankable by the moneyed classes who are willing to assist him to fix the bus.

The JLP had better not believe its own propaganda about Peter Phillips. They had better not believe that nothing changed in the PNP last Sunday. The PNP has become more attractive and more seductive with the election of Peter Phillips. By the admission of Portia herself and her staunchest supporters, she suffered from class and gender bias. To be both a woman and to come from the bowels of the working class is to be doubly cursed in some people's minds.

Peter suffers no such prejudices, a man coming from a respected middle-class family and going on to earn his PhD. Besides, while JLP apologists will speak to his many years serving in various PNP administrations to discredit him, what the Jamaican business elite remembers Peter for is his path-breaking economic achievements of the last four years of the Portia Simpson Miller administration. Andrew and the JLP must never make the mistake of believing that the moneyed classes don't have a high degree of respect for Peter Phillips.

 

FISCAL DISCIPLINE

 

They know of his fiscal discipline, his macroeconomic prudence, and the many economic indices that began to go in the right direction under his watch as finance minister. You can't fool the most powerful private-sector people about Peter Phillips. Raising any socialist bogey is not going to frighten them. And they understand that despite Peter's radical talk last Sunday, if he were to go into Jamaica House, he will simply pick up from where Andrew would have left off and go on with the International Monetary Fund programme (IMF).

In short, the Jamaican elite now feels it has an alternative to Andrew Michael Holness. In fact, they credit Peter with restraining Portia's populism and give him the glory for passing 11 IMF tests - the only Jamaican Government not to have failed any.

If sector interests feel that prosperity is imperilled by this Government's tax measures, they will envision Peter standing at the political Pearly Gates.

The ageist prejudice will be of limited value. Already, The Gleaner, always a strong Phillips backer, ran a front-page lead story on Thursday, saying, 'Age does not matter', reflecting the views of young people. And the PNP strategically pulled out a popular and grass-roots youth, Damion Crawford, to introduce the 67-year-old Phillips, quipping that his race with Andrew is not a sprint, but "a maths race", and "Andrew doesn't have the formula!"

Peter has no natural resonance with young people and can't match Andrew now. But all Peter has to do is to show that Young Andrew's policies are not in the interest of young people; that he is holding back their progress, and yuh frighten to see how that mantra could become attractive to young people.

 

PETER'S SPEECH

 

A number of things in Peter's speech two Sundays ago impressed me. I was happy he spoke about our dysfunctional family structures and linked our high teen pregnancy rate with intergenerational poverty and crime. He came out strongly against transactional politics - just being in the party for what you can get. He reminded that if you can be bought, you will soon be sold. He called for party workers to increase their voluntarism. He spoke about the importance of political education and mobilisation.

Peter could have just lashed the Government. Instead, he gave a vision for his party and the country. It was a disciplined presentation. But Peter faces some hurdles.

One, Andrew Holness must never be underestimated. He possesses enormous psychological strengths. His lack of arrogance and his genuine respect for a diversity of views, and his consensus-seeking nature make him a formidable opponent. Andrew knows how to wheel and come again and understands the art of political compromise.

Andrew could never be party leader, let alone prime minister, if he were not politically astute and psychologically secure. He knows when to retreat for an eventual advance. I am convinced that he genuinely believes in the partnership approach. He is not a 'wrong and strong' leader. He is committed to his neo-liberal economic programme, mind you, and won't jeopardise that, but he knows when to make concessions.

Apart from the fact that it is the 1.5 promise by the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) that has brought on this grievously unpopular $17.5 billion in additional taxes, overdue property taxes, increased pension payments by public servants and other austerity measures to help pay down the debt would have to be followed by Peter's own PNP. There is no easy road.

If Andrew can ride out his storm this year without any catastrophe caused by his taxes or any fallout in the global economy because of Trumpism, Phillips won't have an easy passage to Jamaica House.

Andrew has to adroitly manage his Prague Spring and reassure the business class and the country that they are safe in his hands. I sense no eagerness for elections now. And Andrew Holness is too smart politically not to make the adjustments and alliances needed to weather his storm.

In terms of policies for the poor, the PNP can't claim any monopoly interest in that direction. This JLP Government cannot justifiably be categorised as not being concerned about the poor. It has done much within the bounds of its commitments to the IMF's neo-liberal demands.

Peter will have no more wiggle room to implement pro-poor policies that Andrew has and is utilising. The JLP is already significantly increasing housing benefits and housing access, and its land-titling policies are in place. The JLP has increased educational access and quality.

In my view, Jamaica has two fine leaders in Andrew Holness and Peter Phillips. Some countries have none.

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