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Can Bruce bounce back?

Published:Sunday | July 18, 2010 | 12:00 AM
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  Ian Boyne, Contributor

Crime, identified by Jamaicans as their number one problem, has seen a dramatic decline of 49 per cent over the May-June period, resulting in 87 fewer murders. There was also a 46 per cent decline in shooting incidents over the period. Rape, carnal abuse, robbery and break-ins are also down, praise the Lord.

Jamaicans had forgotten that our dollar could also fluctuate upwards - until recently when the Jamaican dollar has been appreciating. A few commentators and special interests (exporters, etc) might be disappointed, but Jamaican consumers welcome the decreases in prices. Business and consumer confidence survey guru. Professor Richard Curtin was in town last week to tell Jamaicans that unlike his last survey, both business and consumer confidence are up and that 52 per cent of all firms expect the economy to improve during the year, up from just 34 per cent in the first quarter.

"Firms recognise that they now face the best opportunity in years to improve economic and social conditions to the advantage of all Jamaicans," the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce Conference Board said. "Ongoing changes in Government's economic policies in response to the IMF ... has convinced firms that the economy is headed in the right direction," its press release continued. On the same day that was being announced uptown, the Minister of Agriculture Chris Tufton was proudly and, with a great sigh of relief, telling Parliament downtown that finally he had managed to sell the remaining three sugar factories, pumping an $11-billion boost to the ailing sugar industry.

And if that were not enough good news for the day, the minister that day signed what The Gleaner called a "historic agreement" with the Chinese, providing "a major boost" to the coffee industry. The week before was not bad either as no less a person than the International Monetary Fund boss himself, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had come to Montego Bay to tell Caribbean journalists that he was pleased with Jamaica's progress so far under the IMF agreement. Trinidad's new prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, wrapped up a highly successful official visit, with Prime Minister Golding saying delightedly at a joint press conference that he can't recall a time when relations between Jamaica and the economically formidable Trinidad were so good.

Christopher 'Dudus' Coke is finally off our hands and is safe with his thoughts alone in the slammer in Manhattan reading the reams of charges against him. United States President Barack Obama, after that timely photo op (for Golding, that is) and that lovely photo with our charming Ambassador Audrey Marks, has, at last, named an ambassador to Jamaica, the clearest signal yet that things are back on course with Jamaica.

ONE OVERSHADOWING ISSUE

You could be forgiven for betting that Golding must be one of the happiest prime ministers in the world. Except that there is that darn Manatt, Phelps & Phillips issue which just won't go away. Golding must be humming to himself, "Never had it so good and felt so bad". With all the good news on the crime and diplomatic front, the economy, business confidence, there is one issue which overshadows them all and which pales everything else - in the eyes of many - into insignificance.

The People's National Party (PNP) has every interest in lengthening this period of national outrage. It is not in their interest that the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips issue be buried. In fact, much of their own survival is dependent on this issue being kept alive. Their two lives are almost intertwined. If the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips issue were purely a political football; something of interest to only those hungry for power, then the Jamaica Labour Party could afford to rest on the laurels I enumerated earlier in this article.

But it can't. Let nobody in that party believe that what the press has dubbed 'Dudusgate' and the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips issue, which gained further traction on Wednesday with new revelations, will get a decent burial just now. And even after its burial - if it precedes the JLP's - it is sure to be resurrected when the trumpet is blown or bell rings for general elections.

The Dudus and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips issues have galvanised this nation in a sense of outrage and righteous indignation in a way few issues have. It has brought together disparate groups and interests, all sharing a sense of both moral disgust and let-down. The prime minister himself faced that issue squarely in his apology address on May 17: "The way in which this matter has been handled has raised the issue of trust. Several persons and organisations have expressed their disappointment. I should not be surprised because I had raised the bar as to what they should expect of me and what has transpired has fallen short of their expectations."

Your political life can be cut short abruptly by any one act which outrages a people and unites them in moral condemnation. The prime minister's delay over the Dudus extradition issue and his handling of the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips issue was like a Godsend to the PNP. Economic hardships and a galloping crime rate are boosters to any Opposition, but nothing compares to moral outrage, a sense of betrayal of trust and a credibility deficit. An economic turnaround, even a welcome reversal of our alarming crime rate, cannot compensate for a feeling that you can't trust your prime minister.

The more the Jamaican people harbour the sense that their prime minister can't be trusted, that he keeps malice with the truth that he is insincere, crudely opportunistic and unethical, the more difficult he will find it to govern. He will have power but not authority, for the most effective authority is moral authority. The PNP knows this and realises that the greatest weapon in its propaganda arsenal is to reinforce the image of Bruce Golding as untrustworthy, untruthful and morally compromised. They cannot allow the Dudus, Manatt Phelps & Phillips issues to go away - not at a time when the economy is showing signs of improvement and macroeconomic stability and business and consumer confidence are growing - and when the US is no longer at loggerheads with us.

The PNP is masterful and almost flawless in terms of public relations and information management - propaganda, in the better sense of the word - and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) has been clumsy and clueless at it. The JLP is beaten street and lane all the time by the PNP in terms of image management/projection and damage control.

One of the JLP sycophants who plays the role of online terrorist to us in the media had an amazing - and once-in-a-lifetime - flash of insight recently. He noted, in commenting on how the JLP was a disaster at PR, that the reason might be that while the PNP has much support among lawyers, journalists, social activists and academics, JLP middle-class support was largely among business types who don't do well in the public square.

'GENIE-OUS' THOUGHT

I wondered which genie had put that insightful thought in his mind. Martin Henry recently wrote of the PNP's dominance of the commentary corner in the media, both electronic and print.

The PNP is better able to frame issues to align them with its interests and is very astute in gauging public opinion and reacting sensitively to it. Every day, including weekends, at least one release is issued and on most days, several.

There is a constant battle for our minds going on. The PNP knows that it does not have any viable economic alternative to the path the JLP is pursuing. It is astute enough to realise that if it pushes vulgar populism, powerful interests in the private sector, including owners of newspapers, would thrash them. And they need the support of the capitalists.

The PNP's safest bet right now is to keep the Dudus, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips issues alive; try to galvanise support from civil society, skilfully utilising the vocabulary of morality, integrity and accountability to build a moral crescendo for Golding to go. They know the people don't want any elections now. So K.D. Knight makes it clear that they are just out for Golding's head, not that of the entire JLP. It's a brilliant strategy - and it has resonance with the moral community.

I give the PNP an 'A'-plus for marketing and public relations. They know how to manipulate sensibilities. They know how to forge alliances and build common interests. Who is not for integrity and morality in public life? Who is not for character in politics? The PNP is the National Democratic Movement of 1995, minus the constitutional issues. It is riding the wave of disillusionment over "dutty (garrison) politics"; over corrupt politicians and for transparency and full disclosure. The PNP is marketing itself as the party of change, the party of character.

They are not fighting Golding on the economy and are wise enough not to kow-tow to the human rights fundamentalists on crime, knowing where the masses stand. So the big issue for them is Golding's character itself. It's a smart strategy and if the prime minister feels he can answer that by simply growing the economy and reducing crime, he has another guess coming.

FIGHTING BACK

To fight back, Golding has to aggressively fast-track his own agenda of change and project himself as game-changer-in-chief. He must accede to the demands of that broad coalition of civil society groups and academics who took out the full-page ad last week. He must passionately, aggressively get the legislation passed for the special prosecutor, party financing, impeachment of public officials, reform of the libel laws, applying criminal sanctions of breaches of contracts, de-garrisonisation, etc.

Golding has a major strength that his opponents underplay: he is highly sensitive to and respectful of public opinion and deeply committed to pluralistic democracy. He is one of the most psychologically-secure and least thin-skinned politicians I have known.

He knows when to back down and back off. He is an astute political chess player, a man with nine lives. He is not an Eddie Seaga in terms of stubbornness, and that is why one can never write him off until the fat lady sings.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Feedback may be sent to ianboyne1@yahoo.com or columns@gleanerjm.com.