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The danger of politics in our mismatched democracy

Everton Pryce

Sunday, February 17, 2013    

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THE clash of opposing views among the Government, Opposition, the private sector and other stakeholder groups over the announced $16.4 billion tax package following on the national television broadcast by Prime Minster Portia Simpson Miller and her Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips should surprise no one. It is a clash that has been brewing for some time.

The clash began soon after the PNP was returned to power in December 2011, with raised private sector voices about public leadership vis-à-vis the country's fiscal future under an IMF agreement, to be followed by utterances from the Opposition about the style of governance of the ruling party led by Simpson Miller since its return to power.

The quixotic moods of social phenomena in Jamaica at this time, however, make it difficult to predict how this daily clash of divergent views will impact political strategising on the ground between the two dominant parties. But what is certain is that the clash is an essential element in the health of our fledgling democracy, simply because it is one of the surest protections against abuse of power in the country.

It is worth remembering that between December 1983 and February 1989, the disappearance of democracy in Jamaica, with its thrust and parry between Government and Opposition, cost the country dearly in the eyes of the international community.

During that period, Government ministers and officials operating against the background of a one-party Parliament were relieved of almost any sense of struggle, let alone impending disaster.

Our parliamentary system was devoid of its multi-party function, and in the process was reduced to an aberration and distortion of the parliamentary structures bequeathed to us from Westminster.

But 25 years on, Jamaicans are gradually coming to the realisation that politics is again what it always should be — dangerous! More importantly, the clash of views among Government, Opposition and other stakeholders is caused by the fact that our democracy, though fully restored, is mismatched with an important contrast between the perspective of the actor and that of the viewer.

To the viewer — the Opposition, the enthusiastic and reluctant voter, political activist, party functionary, the questioning and cynical journalist, and business operative — the actor in our politics invariably seems to be a person of great power.

Listening to the leader of the opposition waxing in recent times about the credibility of the country's power structure in the hands of the PNP, the impression is given that Government ministers and their ministries are perceived as the repositories of order and command, decision and effect.

Behind walls of secrecy, they are supposed to be engaged in endless plots to scheme and manipulate. They must, therefore, says the viewer, be treated at all times with misgivings, their presumptions ever suspect, and their duplicity requiring always to be laid bare.

But as Mr Holness knows from brutal experience, as both a former Cabinet minister and prime minister, to the actor in our politics, this picture is quite false.

As I can attest with some degree of certainty, Government ministers and officials, almost daily, see themselves gallantly grappling with a world always in danger of sliding out of control.

In their own eyes they are public heroes, struggling to reconcile impossible economic pressures, conflicting social and political demands, competing priorities and untold international complexities. They, more than anyone else, appreciate the multiplicity of competing interests and priorities that give the decision-making process its real flavour.

And they recognise too, that less than optimal decisions are not simply shortfalls from an ideal, but sometimes the best possible solution to complex problems amid multiple constraints.

This is the lesson, if there is any, to be learnt from the recent joint national broadcast between Prime Minister Simpson Miller and Finance Minister Phillips, on the status of the IMF agreement.

Thankfully, ministers of Government are now back where they always ought to be, querulously on the defensive, railing against the 'enemies' who willfully defame their purposes. None of this, however, suggests that the tide has turned radically against the Government.

What I see occurring in the body politic instead, is the return of deep-seated apprehension on the side of those who now govern, and scepticism on the side of those who oppose. Jamaica, I am certain, is moving to consolidate its democratic vigour.

Although the people are busy studying our leaders, knowing full well that as their masters they have the capacity to either make things work, or not work, the Portia Simpson Miller Administration continues to enjoy goodwill among the mass of the population.

The real danger facing her Government thus far is its inability to close the communication and perception-deficit gap between the actor and the viewer in our mismatched democracy. In this particular instance, if in nothing else, objective reality must supersede narrow ideological preferences.

The Administration appears sincere in its commitment to ensuring that the true victors in this latest round of effort to transform the economy must be the Jamaican people. But, in our mismatched democracy, the actor and the viewer seldom see eye to eye. Herein lies the danger in politics.

epryce9@gmail.com

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