Ian Boyne, Contributor
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller has been coming under increasing fire for allegedly being missing in action, disconnected, disengaged and acting as a detached, ceremonial head of state. Mark Wignall has been characteristically caustic, but even columnist Chris Burns, no Portia detractor, has been complaining loudly about the Motivator-in-Chief's dereliction of duty.
And The Gleaner has kept up its pressure on the prime minister to lead and show she is in charge, especially of the country's economic management. When most persons did not even remember that the People's National Party (PNP) was having a conference this weekend, The Gleaner, last Sunday, in an editorial titled 'The PM's obligation', demanded that today's public session of the first post-victory annual conference should see the prime minister using this occasion to "clarify and bring coherence to, and put political muscle behind, the economic agenda".
It has been The Gleaner's contention for months that Finance Minister Peter Phillips has been left all on his own to carry the burden of the austerity message, while the prime minister has been protecting her popularity by dodging the hard issues and cold realities. She has, the argument goes, happily left Austerity Apostle Peter to deliver the bad news while she speaks, when she does, about the Gospel of Populism.
Opined The Sunday Gleaner editorial: "Part of the problem, we suspect, is that the governing party and its administration have got themselves into such a populist twist that they are fearful to talk frankly to Jamaicans about the sacrifices they will have to make. Communicating the requirements is not merely an economic discussion that is the preserve of the finance ministry. It is also a big political discourse that demands that the governing party's most able communicator speak to the larger constituency that must be reached about the necessity of reform."Ronnie Mason, on Nationwide, has been flogging the same issue, which has now gained momentum: It seems everybody is talking about Portia not talking. But today, Portia will talk - and many will be listening. PNP General Secretary Peter Bunting, in response to the media's question about her alleged silence, has said she will say more than enough today. Party Chairman Bobby Pickersgill, in a press conference last Thursday, said after the leader speaks today, "hope will be kept alive" and there will be "meaningful" talk about "jobs, housing and other prospects."
But what The Gleaner and others have been clamouring for is not just some feel-good announcements about goodies and promises. They are calling for the articulation of a vision, a road map and some concrete, measureable timeline-oriented steps to be taken along the path. The Gleaner complained last Sunday that while there has been general enunciation of the trinitarian mantra of tax, pension and public-sector reform, "up to now this project, in so far as most Jamaicans can tell, is largely ethereal, ephemeral even. It lacks substance and specifics - what, when, where, how ... . The point is that the reforms the Government has spoken about ought not to be policy abstractions."
The country is getting impatient of broad outlines. People want specifics, things against which a measuring stick can be placed. Importantly also, people want to know why an International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreement has taken so long to be implemented. Especially in light of the urgency that the PNP itself attached to the conclusion of an IMF deal when it was in Opposition.
Finance Minister Phillips' statement in Parliament last week only served to deepen concerns about the lack of specifics about the "delayed IMF deal", with Ronnie Mason saying Phillips had said essentially what we all knew before. But be careful what you ask for, fellows, especially the Opposition.
For Peter Bunting has hinted that the PNP might be finally prepared to say more about this whole IMF relationship than the JLP would have us hear. In a Gleaner story last Thursday, we read that Bunting warned, "There would be no hiding of the facts of what the PNP inherited when it was elected to form the Government in December 2011."
After all, he reiterated, quoting Pickersgill's memorable quip about Shaw's having "more nerve than a bad tooth", the opposition finance spokesman should be the last one urging this Government to conclude an IMF deal. Government spokespersons have suggested, without being specific, that things were much worse when they took over than they had imagined. Some persons have said that, up to now, Peter Phillips has been restrained in revealing some things which took place under Audley's tenure, especially as it related to the IMF.
But if there is important information which bears relevance to the current state of affairs, that should be revealed once appropriate protocols are observed. As a country, we should take a non-partisan approach to the management of the country's affairs. It is in the interest of Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) supporters to know what really did take place with their party's and Government's relationship with the IMF why we had no agreement for so long before the last general election.
Dr Phillips has contended - and the IMF itself has confirmed - that there were certain things which should have been implemented - which were agreed to - that were not done and that caused a breakdown of trust between the Fund and Jamaica. It is this that has resulted in a reluctance on the part of the Fund to give any leniency now.
In other words, the Fund is saying that "you guys in Jamaica" -for they don't recognise political parties - "did not do what you were supposed to do in our last agreement. You signed an agreement and undertook to do certain things; you took our money, which we gave in good faith, and you breached our agreed timetable. Now if we are to lend to you, you have to do certain things, not just promise certain things." If this is so, let it all hang out today and let the public judge.
For my part, I can understand the JLP's reluctance to go the whole hog with the IMF austerity programme. Some of what was being demanded - the 'sticking points' - would not stick easily with the Jamaican people. Clearly, the JLP felt that with its razor-thin majority in Parliament, it did not have the political clout to carry out the pace of economic reforms being demanded by the IMF. So it did the right thing by telling the country honestly that bitter medicine was being required and then called an election.
PNP's decisive mandate
The argument being made by The Gleaner - as well as by Opposition Leader Andrew Holness - is that the PNP has a strong majority in Parliament; it has a decisive mandate from the people; it has time on its hands; and it has a charismatic, well-loved, highly inspirational leader, and yet it is not harnessing all of that to rally the country together to take its bitter medicine. This is The Gleaner's frustration with the PNP and its leader in particular.
In another biting editorial on Thursday ('Rescuing Simpson Miller's premiership') - The Gleaner knows how to campaign, note its Dudus advocacy and the results - the paper says: "The fact is there is a deep sense among Jamaicans that the country is adrift, with no one at the helm, or of a leadership that is distracted and uncertain." Further, it speaks of the prime minister, "whose obligation it is and who in the Government has the skill to explain to and gain buy-in from the majority of Jamaicans for the sacrifices that must precede the rewards".
I agree with The Gleaner that the prime minister must lead the charge for our game-changing economic transformation programme. She has to explain why some form of austerity and fiscal consolidation is necessary. But The Gleaner should not stop there. The Gleaner must invite the opposition leader to join her in a united national effort to sell this austerity programme. If I were Portia today, I would invite Andrew to join me in a national economic literacy campaign to get Jamaicans to see that there is no alternative to sacrifice and pain in the short term.
Portia should capitalise on the fact that Andrew has publicly supported "bitter medicine" and austerity measures and, in fact, he did again in a Gleaner interview published last Thursday, asking why the Government won't just do it. So when she starts to talk about tough times and banding our bellies, Andrew can't go round the corner and say, "See mi yah, mi we mek tings easier."
Portia should say to the JLP, since you are so eager for us to take the tough decisions; since as you have said, mi son, Andrew, in that Thursday Gleaner interview, "We must understand it is not the IMF that is refusing to give Jamaica a deal ... it is Jamaica that is ... [not] willing to address the fundamental issues", then join me. Andrew knows what those fundamental issues are. He knows the sticking points. Portia must ask him to join her in a joint campaign against populism, political bribery and one-upmanship. He is young and different. Show it.
I believe Andrew Holness has the interest of Jamaica at heart, and I believe firmly that he is committed to see a change in our politics of expediency. I believe that it is the old diehards, the so-called political realists, who would push him not to "be a fool and support Portia on no national campaign". But, Andrew, it is not Portia you would be supporting. You would be supporting Jamaica - a Jamaica in which your children and ours would want to live, work and do business in.
Portia must resist the temptation today to lambaste critics, worst of all those in media. She can't win any war with the media. So don't even try that one. Portia should take on no one, but, like Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention, just surgically and systematically unpack the narrative of her opponents. Don't focus on the immediate frenzied crowd before you, Portia. (Though many might not have much to be ecstatic about.)
Portia must today justify the mandate the people gave her on December 29, 2011. Reaffirm that you are compassionate, caring and courageous.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email
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