Columns

Portia faces strife

Lloyd B Smith

Tuesday, October 30, 2012    

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Walking the talk has been one of every politician's greatest challenges.Very often, prior to an election, many promises are made and amidst the platform hype Heaven is guaranteed here on Earth. Then victory is achieved and the harsh reality sets in. The road to the Promised Land is paved with many treacherous potholes.

Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, who is also president of the ruling People's National Party, led her party to a historic landslide on December 29, 2011, promising an open and honest government. She won the hearts and minds of many Jamaicans because the people desperately wanted someone who they could trust, someone they could believe in; someone whom they thought understood their pain, who shared their aspirations and who looked and sounded like them. Sister P fitted that bill.Why? It's primarily due to emotional intelligence.

Now that the euphoria has waned, Portia faces not only life, but strife. In the case of her many supporters, disgruntlement has set in among some of them who expected manna to fall from Heaven from day one. Having a sense of entitlement in line with the mantra that in Jamaican politics "parson christen him pickney first", they have become impatient, demanding that their party "set them up" now, not later. This means getting rid of all Labourites in government posts regardless of their levels of competence and commitment in getting the job done, as well as dispensing state resources in the form of "handouts".

Commendably, the Simpson Miller government has not embarked full speed ahead on this path to date. However, calls for the firing of Commissioner Owen Ellington, for example, have openly shown that there is a split in the PNP as to who should go and who should stay. This brings into sharp focus how transition should be handled when a party comes to power. Should there be a wide-scale firing of non-supporters? Clearly, certain sensitive posts demand this approach. The problem is that such people very often do not do the right and honourable thing, which is to hand in their resignations. Instead, they hang in there for two selfish reasons: being fired they invariably leave with a lump sum, and if there is a contract in place then if they have to go they will have to be paid up to the end of the contract period. In this regard, the JLP reportedly renewed a number of contracts just before the 2011 general election and this has left the current government in a dilemma because it cannot find the money to pay up these individuals.

So while the prime minister has to deal with the sometimes unrealistic if not irrational expectations of some of her diehard supporters, she has to hunker down and deal with an anaemic economy, a worrying International Monetary Fund agreement, and now Sandy. 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.

One of the early banes of a victorious political party in Jamaica is that its machinery becomes very weak when it forms the government. This happened to the last JLP administration, and like a recurring decimal this virus has begun to infect the ruling PNP. In such a setting, the party often has to go out of its way to empower delegates and workers who form the backbone of the organisation. This means expending vast resources, and there's the rub. The attack on the Constituency Development Fund must be seen in this context. And those members of parliament who are not prepared to foster and prolong the pork-barrel mentality are doomed to face abuse and rejection.

The disconnect between a government and the people can lead not only to ultimate defeat at any subsequent polls, but can also lead to social unrest and alienation from the process. Several prognostications have been made that if this PNP administration fails, then the country may well descend into anarchy. One national newspaper editorial has even posited that in such a precarious situation the Jamaica Defence Force may have to stage a military coup. Is this too far-fetched? Can the JLP overcome its many problems of settling frontline leadership, funding and an alternative message that provides hope and not increased cynicism?

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.

It goes back to emotional intelligence, and she has the ability to communicate effectively with the man in the street more than any other politician in Jamaica at this time. She must leave the comfortable confines of Jamaica House and let her ministers work, work, work, while she does some talk, talk, talk in every nook and cranny. It's almost like hitting the election trails again, because the PNP may have won the battle, but it has not won the war.

Lloyd B. Smith is a member of parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People's National Party.

lloydbsmith@hotmail.com

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