In these times, we need decisive leadership

Claude Robinson

Sunday, November 04, 2012

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PRIME Minister Portia Simpson Miller often bristles whenever she is criticised for not leading from the front and showing us a clear, coherent direction out of the present crisis. Some recent events have again placed what the prime minister calls her personal leadership style on the public agenda.

In his column in this newspaper last week, Lloyd B Smith, journalist and member of parliament from the ruling People's National Party (PNP), explained the prime minister's style while reminding us why the issue is not going away anytime soon.

"The national media have launched a sustained attack on her leadership style which they claim is lacking in decisiveness, is weak and non-productive. A confident and assertive Sister P has repeatedly fought back, defending her leadership style, insisting that hers is not about talk, talk, talk, but work, work, work. In other words, her seeming silence and infrequent connection with the people must not be taken to mean that she is just laid-back and enjoying the trappings of her high office," Mr Smith wrote.

The issue was illustrated again last week by Government's response to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy, mixed signals about the negotiation of a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and confusion over energy policy.

On the matter of the response to the damage left by Hurricane Sandy, I was disappointed that the prime minister was not shown in more personal connection with the families in Portland, St Mary and St Thomas who bore the brunt of the storm; many are devastated.

True, the prime minister did take a helicopter tour of eastern parishes, but there were no reports of her landing anywhere. Also, she provided Parliament with a fairly comprehensive report on the estimated $5-billion damage to agriculture, roads and works, and other infrastructure. And she did promise help for the needy, not the greedy. That's good!

But there were no television images of 'Mama P' comforting the afflicted and directing the flow of Government's meagre resources to where they are most needed. Staying from the people most severely impacted was out of character for the prime minister whose compassion is her driving force. What were her advisers thinking by keeping her at a distance?

It's hard not to contrast the prime minister's near isolation from the human drama in Portland with US President Barack Obama's visibility in New Jersey Wednesday presenting himself as the nation's comforter-in-chief as well as a hands-on commander-in-chief directing federal assistance.

Indeed, I believe his show of leadership renewed hope among his supporters, reminded them why they liked him four years ago, and may pry open up a tight race into a fairly comfortable win Tuesday.

In addition to being 'present on the ground', one would have expected the prime minister to use the power and prestige of her office and her personal credibility to mobilise broad public-private partnerships for the rehabilitation and recovery effort.

Government must secure buy-in

This, particularly in light of the fact that Government is going to be hard-pressed to find money in the Budget to meet the $5-billion price tag which Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips said would have to come from shifting around some expenditure items.

Then there is the matter with the IMF. Dr Phillips says no consideration is being given by the IMF to relaxing some of the stringent regulations applicable to the negotiations which the Government is currently pursuing with the agency in light of the dislocation created by Sandy.

This contrasts with statements from the prime minister, who in interviews the week before expressed hope that the Fund would take account of Sandy's impact on the economy in determining targets and timelines for a new deal. "I hope that the international agencies, as well as the International Monetary Fund, will recognise the problem that we have as a result of the storm," she said. Isn't there a disconnect here?

Then again, we have Minister Phillips insisting that there are no serious differences between the IMF and the Government and the prime minister telling Cliff Hughes on Nationwide that she cannot talk publicly about the prospective IMF agreement "because we do not know where we are going" with it. Again, what are we to make of these comments?

Personally, I believe the prime minister and the Government want an agreement with the IMF and we will have one. But it is also clear that it will not be easy, and Jamaicans will be called upon to share burdens. We don't expect Government to negotiate in public, but we expect a general sense of direction.

As PSOJ President Christopher Zacca said at a Rotary Club of Downtown Kingston event on Wednesday, "Honestly, we aren't sure about the details of aspects of the negotiations and thus have some concerns. I hasten to stress that these concerns stem from a lack of information rather than something specific that we do know."

He also correctly pointed out that for any agreement to work "the Government needs to first of all achieve buy-in from the wider society".

This requires a more open and engaging kind of leadership that communicates clearly and honestly with the people so we know where we stand. The public fora that are now being staged for the prime minister will not cut it.

Lloyd B again: "One indisputable fact is that with or without an IMF agreement, the nation is in for some tough times. This economic tsunami needs togetherness, not divisiveness. An informed citizenry is therefore the best asset this PNP-led Government can hope to have. That is why Mrs Simpson Miller should take seriously the criticism that she has not been communicating sufficiently with the Jamaican people." Enough said!

Policy coherence in energy sector needed

Confusion in the energy sector was indicated by two developments. First, we had Phillip Paulwell, minister of science, technology, energy and mining, castigating the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) for not restoring electricity fast enough and ordering an independent investigation into the company's handling of the restoration work.

At the same time, the prime minister and her minister of information, Sandrea Falconer, were praising JPS for doing a good job.

And as if that was not enough, the country was left to speculate on the significance of news that the Government had filed an appeal against the Supreme Court ruling in July that the exclusive licence granted to (JPS) by former Energy Minister Robert Pickersgill was invalid because the minister had no such authority under law.

Was the Government pulling the rug from under the minister or was the minister reversing himself on the competition policy? Mr Paulwell had hailed the court decision as providing legs for his plan to break up the JPS monopoly in the transmission and distribution of electricity.

Thursday afternoon, Nationwide radio reported the minister as saying that the filing by the Attorney General's Chambers was a procedural one and that "no instructions had been given" to the Attorney General to proceed with an appeal. That decision, he said, would be taken by Cabinet Monday (tomorrow).

We await the outcome. But against a history that includes contradictory statements between the minister and Dr Carlton Davis, senior adviser to Prime Minister Simpson Miller, over the JPS monopoly, as well as the twists and turns over the proposed LNG mega-project we can be pardoned if we wait with some scepticism.

Again, absent details, we have to speculate that JPS owners may very well have pointed out to the minister that without clarity on its licence and operations in Jamaica the company would be hard-pressed to secure billions of dollars to finance the LNG project.

They may or may not have reminded Mr Paulwell that he has staked his reputation on reducing electricity costs by 30 per cent in the near term. A lot is riding on a clear policy direction from Cabinet tomorrow.




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