Portia prepares for PM's job
Robert Buddan, Contributor
The Spokespersons' Council (Shadow Cabinet) of the Opposition People's National Party held an important retreat on March 6 and 7, last weekend. This was part of its preparation to resume its role as government, whenever the electorate asks it to.
The retreat coincided with the fourth year since Portia Simpson Miller first took the oath to be prime minister of Jamaica in March, 2006. It coincided with Women's History Month, which marks 30 years since the United Nation's Convention on the Elimination of All Discrimination Against Women. It coincides with the rise of CARICOM's third female head of a major political party and parliamentary leader of the opposition. Kamla Persad-Bissessar of the United National Congress of Trinidad and Tobago began her first full week as leader of the opposition on March 1. She joins our Portia Simpson Miller and Mia Motley of the Barbados Labour Party in those capacities.
Who knows, by 2012-2013, when elections are due again in Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, we could have three female prime ministers in three of the 'Big Four' in CARICOM. They are all readying to be prime ministers.
The PNP's retreat came midway through the Government and Opposition's terms. It came at a stage of bringing the party's evolving Progressive Agenda to a certain stage of maturity by the end of March. Its new thinking will inform its arguments going into this year's estimates of expenditure and Budget debate. For these debates, the submissions from the party's spokespersons suggest new positions, and sometimes big ideas, for tackling some burning issues that remain unresolved.
Just a week ago, a newspaper story said the PNP was not ready to form government because not much was being heard about its alternative policies. How do we really define readiness? Length of time in Opposition should give a party a period long enough to be ready, but it does not necessarily happen. Big talk might turn out to be mere bluster. Eloquent election debating might turn out to be mere posturing and promising. A manifesto might be abandoned right after winning an election. Campaign advertising might be more about imaging than substance. This is why electorates are often frustrated.
The PNP must not allow itself to be rushed. If it is to retain its label as the thinking person's party, it must put serious thought into its intended programmes. It has now put itself in a position to draft a manifesto. So, I imagine, it is close to ready for an election. But it must make even greater use of its time to work through the details of its plans and engage the society in the serious debate it has not had in some years. It does intend to continue to hold its public forums and, in fact, held one on the vital area of education just yesterday. It also intends to put together working committees to put details into the programmes that arise from the policies it has so far agreed to. There should now be a fertile period of public dialogue and public education so that Jamaicans can know what future they would have with a PNP government.
Responsibility of PM
As we approach our 50th year of Independence in 2012, the PNP has a special role in assessing the political system it fought for during constitutional decolonisation. A prime minister occupies the highest political office in the Constitution. He or she is also the chief defender of the Constitution. Portia Simpson Miller will need to restore the proper balance between the executive, Parliament, the judiciary and the public service. Much of that balance has been lost. This was apparent from the first weeks of the Government, beginning with the Vasciannie affair, right up to the mysterious transfer of Major Reese. There have been suspicions of interference and pressure, sometimes political and probably even personal. The dismissals of ministers and public servants, sometimes in embarrassing ways, have helped to undermine public confidence in public servants. This is precisely the point being made in the Reese case.
The future prime minister must restore leadership of our parliament so that Parliament resumes its place at the centre of our democracy. The prime minister is the senior parliamentarian. Portia Simpson Miller believes that the standard of parliamentary behaviour must rise. Her party believes that important national issues and international agreements must be debated in Parliament. For example, we still don't know the details of the Air Jamaica divestment plans, yet this is our national airline. The PNP believes that the business of the Houses of parliament must be organised professionally.
We have to resort to the press to know about the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Air Jamaica and the Coke extradition, where speculation is mixed with fact. And the PNP believes that the business of the nation must be more transparently conducted through Parliament. Parliament's business is handled too politically. The Opposition leader is right. It is time for a parliamentary office to manage the business of the people's representatives.
The prime minister is chiefly responsible for the international reputation of a country. There can be little doubt that Jamaica's international reputation has suffered badly. Our international reputation for crime, corruption and human rights abuse is not new. But the present Coke extradition case makes the link between all of them. For the first time, our international partnership with the United States is at risk. But our partnership with Britain and Canada, over fighting transnational crime, is also at risk. When the prime minister makes a speech in Parliament, primarily for his constituency, because it defends a wanted individual linked to his party, then the mix between crime, politics and Parliament comes to override the interest of law, morality and nation. That is where our international reputation suffers.
The Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica has finally come to see this obvious fact and now criticises the Government its members so lavishly sponsored in elections.
The prime minister is the figure that most represents the nation and the Government's national policies. In a sense he/she is the father/mother figure for the Jamaican family. The nation looks to that person for the defence of the safety and security of the family; for policies to better the education of the people; for making the nation healthy; for it to be working productively; for it to be housed; and for everyone to have equal opportunity to give their best effort and be rewarded in proportion to the effort they give. Yet, between the IMF and the Government's policies, opportunity is fast disappearing.
The opposition leader wants to restore the financial viability of those socioeconomic institutions that go to the heart of the Jamaican family. These include the Students' Loan Bureau, the National Housing Trust, the National Insurance Fund and the Universal Access Fund.
A prime minister must head a taxpayers' government, one that gives taxpayers the best value for their money. We also need a stronger integrity system, maybe even a fourth branch of government, empowered and independent enough to carry out its functions fully and fearlessly. The opposition leader intends to work towards all of these objectives. We need to restore the virtuous side of prime ministerial government, and she is ready.
Robert Buddan lectures in the Department of Government, UWI, Mona. Email: Robert.Buddan@uwimona.edu.jm.