All the president's men - Fumbling Portia should loosen grip of political advisers
Chris Tufton, Contributor
President of the People's National Party and prime minister of Jamaica, Portia Simpson Miller, is coming under fire for her apparent lack of leadership. Portia has been described in several quarters as being out of touch with the challenges the country faces, failing to provide direction on the way forward in a time of national crisis.
Her Government is accused of failing to seal an IMF deal, resulting in tremendous uncertainty and waning confidence in the Jamaican economy. That lack of confidence is leading to fear and driving investors and consumers alike to be cautious in their approach to investment and spending.
As no-nonsense president of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, Chris Zacca, put it last week, failure to secure an IMF agreement would possibly lead to a fall in business and consumer confidence, loss of financing from international development partners, reduction in the country's foreign currency reserves, further slide in the Jamaican dollar, and higher levels of inflation and hardship for the entire country, particularly the poor and vulnerable.
Zacca is not alone in his criticism of the prime minister's handling of the economy. The parliamentary Opposition, as well as almost every critical civil-society organisation, including the editors of two daily newspapers, has been critical of the PM's lack of decisiveness.
All have admitted that there are tough decisions that the country faces and that the Government needs to lead on the structural and fiscal reforms to cut spending and reduce the 140 per cent debt-to-GDP ratio.
But the Government knows that cutting spending would mean downsizing the public sector, divesting non-core state services, and reducing expenditure on critical infrastructure and social services. The implications are more sacrifices and across-the-board hardships for the Jamaican people, many of whom will find it increasingly difficult to have access to basic social services and community infrastructure, due to a lack of state funding.
It is this likely scenario that is apparently causing reluctance on the part of the Government to conclude an IMF agreement. It may also be the prospect of increased hardship and sacrifice for the Jamaican people that have caused the PM to be so reluctant to lead from the front.
Could it be that the prime minister is fearful that in taking tough decisions, she would run the risk of being perceived by the Jamaican people as not being pro-poor? Is it that the prime minister is fearful that in the final stages of her political career, her legacy of being the champion of the poor would be compromised?
Mrs Simpson Miller, in an address to the nation last Sunday, reiterated her mantra of balancing the books while balancing people's lives. I suspect that she is terribly afraid that she will be accused of abandoning the poor. It appears that Portia may be in conflict with herself over her political legacy.
On the other hand, the prime minister has not seemed her natural self during her first year in office. She appears in public and speaks infrequently, is more measured in her approach, and seems rigidly scripted in her presentations, from offering salutations to giving her conclusions.
One cannot help but conclude that in Portia's second tenure at the helm, she is being rigidly managed by a group of handlers who are either overprotective of her or who feel that she should be prevented from being herself, as her unplanned and unscripted utterances run too great a risk of her saying things that could come back to haunt her and her Government.
Her handlers may have further tightened the reins over her when she, perhaps fortuitously, suggested that Jamaica needed a Greek-style bailout. On almost every occasion that the prime minister speaks, she reads from a prepared text. Frankly, she seems unnatural and loses the passion she is known for and the empathy she has in the past consistently shown to the poor.
In a presentation a week ago, Portia was again un-Portia, as she read from a script, listing a menu of government programmes which represented the achievements of the Government's first year in office. The Jamaica Labour party (JLP) was correct in countering, by suggesting that a number of these achievements actually started under its government. But more importantly, the JLP rightly criticised the PM for not spending any time addressing the critical IMF talks and the wider implications for the Jamaican economy.
NOT VINTAGE PORTIA
The JLP's criticism was part of a chorus which included critical national organisations, civil society, and social media. One can hardly say, therefore, that the prime minister was being criticised solely for political advantage. Rather, there is a genuine concern that Jamaica seems to be drifting in uncertainty. Only the prime minister, as head of the Government, has the legitimacy to point a direction and restore some certainty. The Prime Minister missed the opportunity last Sunday.
This is not vintage Portia. This is Portia suffering from an overdose of advice and strict management. In her national address, her script writers prepared a most inappropriate narrative, and she is now paying the price of public condemnation.
Is Portia being forced to follow a particular path prescribed by her handlers, or is she fully in charge of her sentiments and allowed to reflect on them in her usual passionate style?
Delano Franklyn, an apparent key operative in the Office of the Prime Minister, has been quick to defend the PM's position, arguing that she is delivering on her promises to Jamaican people. Ambassador Burchell Whiteman has taken to the air waves to support the PM.
Indeed, the prime minister herself, apparently responding to her critics, suggested that she prefers her husband to watch the evening news as she avoids the naysayers and negative talk. No doubt, the PM's husband would be her closest ally (my wife is my most consistent adviser!) and confidante in a political minefield.
Perhaps Portia has decided to follow the advice of her PNP predecessor, P.J. Patterson. The former prime minister was extremely methodical in his political strategy and conservative with his use of words, speaking only when he felt he needed to. Based on his electoral success, he obviously got away with this approach, as it was his natural style. But Portia is not P.J., and these are different and difficult times.
The prime minister would be well advised to rethink her strategy and advise her advisers on the need for her to be herself and communicate more with the Jamaican people. Jamaica's crisis needs strong leadership. She has to lead the charge and help Jamaicans understand what needs to be done - and get her Government to do it.
Portia's strength has always been her ability to communicate and show empathy. She does so best when she speaks from the heart and is most effective when she explains in her own way. She needs to use this strength and build consensus around the solutions to the country's challenges.
With the Cabinet's retreat now out of the way, Prime Minister Simpson Miller needs to serve notice to her advisers that she will be more inclined to follow her instincts, even after listening to their advice.
Dr Christopher Tufton is opposition senator and spokesman on foreign affairs, foreign trade and investment and co-executive director of think tank CaPRI. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.