You could almost forget that today is the public session of not just a People's National Party (PNP) annual conference - usually a big media event - but a special 75th-anniversary conference. So overshadowed has it been by the leadership race in the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), and now the damning judgment on ministers Phillip Paulwell and Richard Azan by the contractor general. And then there have been the revelations from the Kern Spencer trial.
Which all feeds back into this leadership race in the JLP. For if nothing else, challenger to the JLP throne, 'Man-a-Yard' Audley Shaw, has been patented as the Scandal Revelation Specialist. He earned his stripes years ago as a man who was always uncovering PNP scandals, real or alleged. The controversy now swirling from the recent contractor general's reports highlights, in the minds of some, the need for Man-a-Yard at this time to light fire under the PNP.
There's never a dull moment in Jamaican politics, and it's set to get even more interesting. This JLP leadership race affects more than just the publicity - or lack of it - that this PNP annual conference has attracted. It will affect how the PNP governs and reacts to national developments. For whether Shaw succeeds in his challenge or not, he has set in place certain things which can't be turned back.
Opposition Leader Andrew Holness has already become more assertive in his opposition to the Government. He has been speaking out more and more quickly. On Tuesday afternoon, when the contractor general's reports were tabled in Parliament, he wasted no time calling a press conference right there to call for Azan to go. He has sent out videos to the media to comment on economic issues - not waiting on his opposition spokesman on finance to do so. He has trekked to Goat Islands and is not allowing any grass to grow under his feet. So Shaw is already having his impact.
We are living in interesting times. A vigorous, vibrant Opposition is critical to our democracy. If the Audley Shaw challenge results in our having an Opposition more vigilant and vehement in protecting our interests, that is objectively a good thing.
I believe strongly in counterbalancing power. No set of people, no matter how virtuous, should be left without accountability and, indeed, without opposition. It is in Jamaica's interest to have an Opposition that is actively engaged in looking out for our interests and in lobbying for our just causes.
The PNP has never been ideologically hostile to democratic ideas. In fact, the party has actively encouraged a democratic ethos. Even its critics have had to concede that. The PNP has been a party of ideas and has been a forum for the contest of ideas. Of course, our leader-centric culture has had its influence on the PNP, too, but that party has had a firmer base in democratic ideals than the JLP. Even Audley is saying the JLP should learn from the PNP in this regard.
I am all for a more assertive, even more strident Opposition. But not an overly opportunistic, Machiavellian one. I say not overly, for I have to be realistic and acknowledge that in the real world, politicians can't resist the temptation to pander to the lowest common denominator and play to the gallery. But it can't be out of control. I think Andrew Holness has been giving that kind of balanced leadership so far, but with the pressure to 'tek it to Portia' in an effort to put the JLP back in power, I fear national interests might be sacrificed for a more adversarial, confrontational politics, especially under Audley.
In his 'national broadcast' launching his campaign, last weekend, Shaw came across statesmanlike, sober and sound. I had written already that part of his communications mastery is his ability to relate to various publics. This is why I said he is attractive to various classes and interest groups. Shaw can be sensational, histrionic and rabble-rousing on the political platform, but he can be quite nuanced, balanced and measured in talking to businesspeople, civil society and religious folk. Shaw is not just the hothead some project him to be. He can be whatever you want him to be and what he needs to be.
You saw that Sunday night in that effective address. He showed he could relate to burning national issues, talking about "unacceptably high unemployment, particularly among the youth ... rising crime and child abuse ("One child is abused every 30 minutes in Jamaica")." He hit what he termed the reintroduction of "cost-sharing through the back door ... . Hospitals running dangerously low on critical supplies ... ; cheap imported chicken back is short while chicken farms remain idle and underutilised; (and) the Jamaican dollar is at its lowest in the country's history ... sending prices through the roof."
He was, indeed, speaking to the nation as a whole, not just party delegates. (Though I don't know on what basis his broadcast was labelled a 'national broadcast' when he is neither-as-yet opposition leader, prime minister or the governor general. Can any political leader who buys time on media be deemed to be giving a national broadcast?)
Audley knows that how he is marketed to his delegates hungry to get their party back in power is not how he can be marketed to the nation. His delegates want the 'ray-ray', the 'tracing', the 'chucking' of badness on Portia, the torrent of criticism about "this wicked, corrupt, scandalous Government". But he knows that significant sections of the society are fed up with that kind of crude and crass adversarial politics.
So he said on Sunday night - and I burst out in uproarious laughter - that "we need to become a kinder and gentler nation", and "our party must lead the way by becoming a kinder and gentler party". A kinder and gentler nation and a kinder, gentler party with a mad, cross and angry leader to tek it to Portia? But this was not a political platform. It was a 'national broadcast'.
He even ended with a prayer - the famous Prayer of Assisi: "Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace." This is the same man being marketed primarily as man of fierce, fighting words, in contrast to the more peaceful, gentle lamb Andrew - which is said to be a bad thing. But for his national broadcast, he is begging the Lord to make him an instrument of peace: "That where there is discord, I may bring harmony." But the point of his campaign is, there is too much harmony between Baby Andrew and Mama Portia now! But selective branding has a place in marketing, I guess.
Audley will formally launch his campaign next Sunday. Interestingly, we are promised that this campaign "will be a contest of ideas, plans and programmes and vision; and not one based on negative campaigning and personal attacks".
Again, it seems to be Audley will have to pull out his selective marketing for this one, for at the grass-roots level, it's not ideas, plans and programmes which excite people and get their adrenaline going: It's fighting words, talk of scandals, corruption and bangarang which stimulate people. Nice, pretty-boy words like those of Andrew Holness won't cut it. A number of delegates seem to be saying that does not constitute 'winnability'. I am sure Daryl Vaz would say that you have to, as it were, 'chuck badness' to Portia and the PNP to get back into Jamaica House.
The masses are not moved to action by ideas, plans, programmes and vision. They are moved by the visceral, by emotions. Every astute politician knows this. It's not the man with the best ideas who wins. Ideas, programmes and vision, yes, will be marketed to civil society, businesspeople, church groups and media, certainly. But on the ground, when delegates are being canvassed, it's ray-ray politics which reigns. Audley is no fool.
But I await his plans, programmes, etc., for that's how he will market himself to people like us in media. I wait to see how significantly different his ideas for the economy, security, justice, education, environment and international affairs will be from Andrew's and even the PNP's.
Will Audley make it clear to poor people where he stands on the issue of removing GCT exemptions so they will pay more for basic goods? If interest rates are not allowed to rise even marginally, how will the dollar be 'defended' in the short term? What grand ideas does he have to attract foreign investment which he did not have less than two years ago when he was finance minister?
What significant adjustments would he make to this current IMF agreement and what are the chances of that multilateral going with his ideas when Jamaica has no leverage? I stand with Audley in his vocal opposition to some IMF targets and policies, but as to whether he could get the Fund to make adjustments is another matter. Besides, the hardships occasioned by the austerity measures being imposed now would continue, whichever party or leader is in power, once we are on an IMF agreement.
Audley needs to tell us clearly and forthrightly how he would do things differently from what is being done now by the PNP and proposed by current Opposition Leader Andrew Holness. For those of us not in any of the political tribes, it does not matter one hoot who is leading the JLP or which of the contenders is best able to 'tek it to Portia'. What we want to know is which leader is better able to tek the country on a path of prosperity and growth.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.