Mon | Dec 11, 2017

Ian Boyne | Phillips scores in maiden outing

Published:Sunday | September 24, 2017 | 12:00 AM
PNP President Peter Phillips greets supporters at the party's 79th annual conference at the National Arena in Kingston last Sunday.

Perhaps the most important observation about Peter Phillips' historic presidential address to the annual conference of the People's National Party (PNP) was its sobriety, measured tone, and lack of demagoguery and hubris.

He could have spent most of his time rabble-rousing and playing to the gallery. Yes, he had his rhetorical lines of peroration, "They don't know what they are doing."

He had his polemical points for sure: "They promised a tax break without a new tax take. That was a SCAM!" He reminded that "they promised good governance ..." but, instead, "Government grass fi Government minister farm; $8.3 million for minister phone bill; $600-million bushing programme to buy votes". There were those lines, quite understandably so in the context where you have to feed the railing Comrades with some ray-ray.

But in the area where he could have been most strident in lambasting this administration, crime, Phillips was remarkably restrained and statesman-like. He not only declared that he was not opposed to the Government's major crime initiative, the zones of special operations, but he offered the hand of cooperation to the Government to deal with this pressing national issue. "We are prepared to work with all who are vital to the effort to mobilise the country to isolate the criminals" - a welcome and refreshing statement to the nation and the right signal to criminals.

Phillips was not about to play politics with this most serious threat to the nation. "Policing is a tough job in a crime-ridden society. The police are not paid well and the country has to show them that we support them."

The PNP president went on to say, "Let me make it clear. We support every measure that effectively reduces crime and violence in our country." In an unmistakable and potent show of support for the security forces, Phillips said, "We commend the police and soldiers in Mt Salem for their exemplary conduct," and he then, commendably, called for the replenishment of the $20-million Legal Defence Fund so that when police face criminals and terrorists, they don't have to pay out of their pocket when they have to go to court.

 

TARGETED ADDRESS

 

The police will love the fact that he is urging Government to put them ahead of the line in public-sector negotiations. In fact, there were several interest groups that would have come away from Dr Phillips' speech feeling that they have someone in their corner. It was a very strategic and targeted address. Members of the security forces, squatters (700,000 of them), desperate low-income, home-deprived Jamaicans (a large number), small business people, the powerful and vocal environmental lobby, farmers, young people, and pensioners, for whom he lobbied for an increase in NIS, would feel well represented.

On the sensitive issue of Jamaicans' getting jobs in the construction sector - both as professionals and ordinary unskilled labourers - Phillips, drawing on nationalistic sentiments without the crudeness and clumsiness of Peter Bunting, made a strong case for Jamaican labour. He didn't even have to mention the Chinese, but deftly did his dog-whistling. Peter Bunting should learn from Phillips, who in his academic life studied the Jamaican elite and its historically famous 21 families. Phillips knows the power of certain Chinese families - and the geopolitical significance of China.

Notice Phillips' crisp and unassailable appeal to reason. "It cannot be that the Jamaican industry that designed and built the National Stadium, Conference Centre, downtown Kingston and the new Parliament building, we have to get foreign expertise to build." Without attacking the Chinese companies and chasing away significant party funding from the local Chinese elite, Phillips, a darling among the moneyed classes who respect him for his technocratic skills, said preferential treatment would be given to Jamaican enterprises in the construction sector. Appealing to ordinary Jamaicans, he said all state construction contracts in a future PNP Government would have standard compensation rates, an oblique reference to common complaints of Chinese construction firms paying substandard rates.

Phillips also championed the workers' cause on the important issue of the now-common practice of contract work, which reverses the workers' hard-fought rights. The media have not been saying much about this, and our emasculated unions seem to have lost their voice, narrowly concentrating on their privileged group of workers.

 

DENYING BENEFITS

 

With the PNP known for defending working-class interests, Phillips lashed the growing practice: "Too many employers are offering contract work only and are using this unfairly to deny the rights of benefits, including pension." Phillips went on to say that a new PNP administration would be committed to "bring an end to this system of contract work and to restore workers their hard-won rights and benefits".

Peter Phillips showed in his first presidential address at conference that he was no leader who was simply going to "oppose, oppose, oppose". He had concrete policy proposals.

Not only was Peter Phillips refreshingly sober and generally temperate in his presentation, he also made a rare confession as member of the political class. Referring to polls that showed that "too many are disillusioned about the value of independence, and too many are cynical about our political institutions," he said with brutal frankness. "The buck stops with the political class. So even as we celebrate the gains the country has made since Independence, we must also accept responsibility for what has been left undone." Good confession, dear Peter.

 

MISSION OF THE PNP

 

The mission of his party, he pledged, was to "build a more inclusive Jamaica", with his tag line, "A Jamaica that works for all." This will be a major challenge, and the big question is: what will make the PNP a better vehicle for that than the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP)? The PNP and the JLP are following essentially the same neo-liberal IMF programme, with only some variation on the theme. The two parties face the same constraints, despite their posturing. What in the thinking of the PNP essentially and fundamentally differentiates it from the JLP today?

Phillips was programmatic and policy-driven in his presidential address. Yes, there were elements of PNP ideological strain, but nothing that Andrew Holness could not embrace.

If all Peter Phillips has to offer are programmes and policies, he will have a hard time competing with Andrew Holness. Peter had good suggestions about land titling and housing, for example, but the JLP is already down that track. The PNP and the JLP are largely reading from the same playbook - written by the IMF with some indigenous tweaking from both parties.

 

LESS SOCIAL MEDIA SAVVY

 

Phillips will have the hardest time challenging Andrew Holness in terms of leadership style and effective leadership. Andrew has a sensitivity to public opinion, including elite agenda-setting, that is unsurpassed. His social media-savvy nature gives him an advantage over Phillips. Notice how he deals with controversies. Take his response - very quick response - to that gaffe in naming former Firearm Licensing Authority board chairman Dennis Wright to a new board. Rapid response to public disapproval to that move.

Andrew has his fingers on the pulse of things. He generally reacts quickly and in line with public sentiments. Some might charge he is a follower, not a leader and that his mode of leadership is focus group-driven. Say what you will, he is not likely to outrage and repulse people, and hence lose political favour. Andrew's conciliatory nature and his ability to listen and manage his public image well gives him tremendous political capital. Everyone knows he is smart and that he has technocratic skills. But more so he is not arrogant and petty.

So with his own slew of strong programmes and policies, his keen oversight of the IMF programme, and his personality strengths, Andrew Holness is a formidable opponent for Peter Phillips. Peter, therefore, has to go beyond the programmatic and technocratic. He must go for vision, for big, audacious goals; for a 21st-century vision of a New Jamaica. He doesn't need charisma for that. He needs vision and ideas and Peter is a deep intellectual. Peter should have given us something larger than ourselves to believe in. He should have talked values and attitudes. He should have spoken beyond the individualistic. He should have mastered the fear of philosophy.

If that were not the right forum, he had better find that forum soon.

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