Delano Seiveright, Guest Columnist
ON THE evening of Saturday, February 25, 2006, after the votes of delegates were cast at Jamaica College in Kingston, Portia Simpson Miller defeated her main challenger, Dr Peter Phillips to take, albeit marginally, the presidency of the People's National Party (PNP).
She was sworn in as prime minister, a month later, to tremendous fanfare and stratospheric popularity poll numbers. The populist woman from the bowels of the working class took charge of a political party renowned for intellectual snobbery and became Jamaica's first female prime minister. Mrs Simpson Miller's rise to power is one for a storybook.
After riding a short-lived wave of popularity, reality set in and the PNP suffered a marginal defeat at the hands of the Jamaica Labour Party on September 3, 2007, bringing an end to a ruinous eighteen and a half consecutive years of PNP rule. On Saturday, September 20, 2008, after yet another gruelling internal campaign, Simpson Miller retained the presidency of the PNP defeating Phillips yet again. The result brought to the fore a PNP split into two strong camps battling for control of the party. Criticisms of Portia Simpson Miller were always far more vitriolic from her own party than from the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). During both internal campaigns unflattering comments were made about Simpson Miller's intellectual abilities, lack of qualifications and her perceived inability to handle the job of governing. She is viewed by many as populist with not much of an appreciation for the finer details of statecraft.
After going head to head twice it is likely that Simpson Miller and Phillips may find it difficult to get along. This is made worse following revelations purported to come from a United States diplomatic cable via Wikileaks, where Phillips is reported to have made a raft of uncomplimentary remarks about Simpson Miller and cast a cloud of doom on the country's future in agreeing with a viewpoint that Jamaica is on track to becoming the English-speaking Haiti if Simpson Miller was to return to government as prime minister. He also purportedly said that he will not serve in a Simpson Miller-led government.
Today, Phillips is the minister of finance, the second most important post in the Cabinet, led by Prime Minister Simpson Miller. In an environment of economic crisis and the need to make very difficult and tough decisions, while at the same time working to maintain some decent level of political mileage for the two personalities, it boggles the mind as to how this will work. With no easy way out of our economic crisis, the general silence of the prime minister and a Cabinet filled with pro-Simpson Miller members, Phillips must surely feel terribly isolated at times.
One year in office and it appears as if little progress has been made on a crucial International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreement. And already we have seen a major and a frighteningly frenetic reversal in the economic gains of 2011. The Net International Reserves have plunged from just about US$2 billion to just around US$1.2 billion to date. Beyond that the exchange rate has galloped from J$86:US$1 to around J$93:US$1; interest rates are likely to go upward, unemployment is at a 10-year high and business and consumer confidence levels are dismal. The economic catastrophe that Jamaica is in has been articulated umpteenth times.
Our unsustainable debt is at around 140 per cent of GDP and servicing that debt takes up in the region of 60 per cent of Jamaica's annual budget. With tax revenues exhausted year upon year we borrowed our way for survival, creating an economic mess that will take a series of tough actions to address. With the doors of lenders either closed or barely open at high interest rates we are as they say, up the creek. An IMF agreement would, at least, reopen the doors of the multilaterals including the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and the European Union, while raising business confidence and possibly reopening access to the capital markets. In any event, we have to cut the cost of government, raise revenue intake and borrow less. The only significant ways to do this is to cut our public-sector wage bill, reform our government's pension arrangements and implement comprehensive tax reform.
The question we must now ask is, can Dr Phillips, given the sordid history between himself and the prime minister, carry on effectively in his job? It doesn't seem likely. Vocal support from the prime minister is essential. Simpson Miller must take the lead, get her Cabinet on board and give her finance minister the confidence to do what needs to be done for the country's sake.
The Ireland experience is a good example of what cooperation really means. A Gleaner column titled 'From Celtic Tiger to Carib Tiger' by Financial Analyst Keith Collister 10 years ago looked at how Ireland's government in 1987 after years of stagnation, poor prospects and a grubby economic crisis decided that enough was enough and moved collectively in addressing the challenges. Through social partnership, significant expenditure cuts, fiscal discipline, comprehensive tax reform and a raft of effective government policies, Ireland boomed. This was not possible, however, without the strong support given to Finance Minister Ray MacSharry by Prime Minister Charles Haughey. In a 1987 letter to Cabinet ministers from the prime minister, he stated:
"Dear Minister, It is imperative that that we carry further the progress we have made so far this year in getting public expenditure under control. Unless we achieve further significant cuts in expenditure the growth in public sector debt will continue to be a burden on the economy, inhibiting economic growth and employment and making it impossible for us to get development under way. We must begin to identify the specific programmes and expenditures for further cuts now if we want to get results for the remainder of this year and next. The proposals must have the effect of achieving a significant reduction on your department's present level of spending. They may cover capital as well as current expenditure. A radical approach should be adopted and no expenditure should be regarded as sacrosanct and immune to elimination or reduction. We do not want a series of justifications of the status quo or special pleadings".
The letter was subsequently published in Ireland's newspapers for maximum effect.
The prime minister's unequivocal and public support of the finance minister, in part, led to Ireland's economic transformation from "the sick man of Europe" into a wealthy high-growth economy, "the Celtic Tiger". Despite the challenges today brought on by the 2008 global economic crisis and the Eurozone crisis, Ireland is still in good shape.
Prime Minister Simpson Miller's government has a strong mandate with a healthy hold on the majority in the House of Representatives and full control of local government. Her party and Government also have strong fraternal support in civil society and media. And most importantly, Simpson Miller is as strong as she has ever been as president of the PNP. It is for her to decide when she retires. Ireland had a minority government in 1987 and managed to carry through the tough reforms with the party managing to retain power for umpteenth years after. We all want the best for Jamaica and the Simpson Miller-led administration with all the natural advantages should have acted with intelligent alacrity last year. If they continue to fumble, the bitter medicine will now become poison, collapsing any credible hope for medium- and long-term success.
So what to do? Albert Einstein said, "Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning." Let's keep doing that and pray that good sense prevails sooner rather than later.
The Government is in a strong position to do what needs to be done. They have nothing to lose.
Delano Seiveright is a former president of Generation 2000, a JLP affiliate. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com