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Portia — from Wood Hall to Jamaica House... again

By HG HELPS Editor-at-Large helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, January 01, 2012    

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RUNNING around as a skinny, shy young girl at Marlie Hill Primary School in what is now the constituency of North Central St Catherine, Portia Simpson presented no warning signs that she had political ambitions, let alone that she would one day become prime minister of her native land.

After all, the school which she attended at the start of the 1950s, had, itself, done nothing spectacular to raise anyone's antenna that even within another 50 years one of its own would hold its name aloft in glory.

Even in Wood Hall, where she was born on December 12, 1945, thoughts of that district turning out someone of political significance was tantamount to political blasphemy.

Fast-forward a half a century later and the name Portia Simpson, now lengthened by the matrimonial acquisition of Miller, would resonate with thunderous effect across the length and breadth of this North Caribbean island of 2.8 million inhabitants.

Having already upset the social status quo and the 'Boys' Club' by becoming the first woman prime minister in 2006, Simpson Miller rewrote the pages of history again last Thursday by repeating the feat and joining her mentor, Michael Manley, as the only politicians since Jamaica gained Independence in 1962 to have served as prime minister, lost, and returned to political office as leader.

Her People's National Party's (PNP) resounding triumph over the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) not only solidified her status as one of the greats of the Jamaican political scene, but thrust her into the annals of Jamaica's history as a strategist par excellence.

Her entry onto the political playground as a councillor of the Kingston & St Andrew Corporation in 1974, paved the way for a more meaningful calling up to the altar of service, for by 1976, she was elected as Member of Parliament for South West St Andrew, a move that was to prove telling.

She had won a seat that was previously foreign territory to the PNP and in the process reversed a deficit of several thousand voters in a move that baffled political commentators.

Simpson Miller polled a record 13,584 votes to the JLP's Joe McPherson's 4376 in 1976, ticking off the first PNP win in the seat formed in 1959.

Before that, the PNP had found it tough to break through, as the JLP's Wilton Hill (7,261 votes) thumped Jason Gordon of the PNP (4,020 votes) in 1972 when Michael Manley led his party to national victory.

Even years prior to that, David Clement (DC) Tavares of the JLP, beat trade unionist Hopeton Caven in 1967, polling 7,485 votes to Caven's 4,152. Tavares had before knocked over the PNP's Frank Spaulding in the 1962 and 1959 elections.

Even if the claims of bogus voting and stuffing of ballot boxes are factored in, which on a couple of occasions resulted in blatant over-voting, Simpson Miller had no equal in the seat that she has served in up to now, broken only by the period 1983 to 1989 after Manley shied away from contesting the snap election of 1983.

Simpson Miller's first call to higher national service came in 1976 when Manley appointed her parliamentary secretary for local government in the Office of the Prime Minister.

Since then she has held full ministerial responsibility for labour, welfare and sport, first in 1989, followed by tourism and sport; local government, community development and sport, before becoming prime minister in 2006, retaining the portfolio for sport and acquiring the traditional defence responsibility.

Getting to that position though was not all smooth sailing for Simpson Miller, a former president of the PNP's Women's Movement, who struggled along the way in her quest to beat PJ Patterson to the tape in the race for leadership of the PNP in 1992.

Manley's fights with diverticulitis and prostate cancer had taken a toll on the charismatic politician, who opted to pass the baton to the most suited individual in the party, following the organisation's crushing defeat of the JLP three years before.

Patterson, who had left the Manley Cabinet before in a row over his granting of a waiver to petroleum distribution company, Shell, was first to be nominated for party president; but saw a later challenge from Simpson Miller, whom he defeated comfortably in the run-off. Patterson never sidelined the popular Simpson Miller who was given the labour and welfare ministry in the Cabinet after the general election of 1993.

But after following in Patterson's shadow for 14 years while he oversaw significant infrastructural and telecommunication developments to the society, clouded by claims of State corruption and favouritism, it was time for Simpson Miller to make her move again to the prime minister's office, Jamaica House, as the chosen one in February 2006.

The text was somewhat different from 1992, in that the 2006 race now had a field of four. It was like a four-way heavyweight fight, with the combatants all excelling in their chosen fields. University lecturers Dr Peter Phillips; a political economist, Dr Omar Davies, and Dr Karl Blythe, a medical practitioner, all lined up against her in a stern intellectual duel that her detractors said would result in certain defeat for her, as she did not have the capacity to match up to the boys.

But in a show of political strength, Simpson Miller, one of the longest-serving PNP vice-presidents, crushed the party's machinery that lined up mainly behind Dr Phillips, knocked away her opponents like nine pins, and had historians hustling to add new pages to their journals.

Another leadership challenge by Dr Phillips in 2008, also with the majority backing of the party's parliamentary group, was met with an even greater margin of victory.

Regarded as the most popular politician since Alexander Bustamante and Michael Manley, Simpson Miller's often verbal protestations for better living conditions for Jamaica's poor and disadvantaged, continues to win her favours in the eyes of the proletariat, the unemployed and the downtrodden.

Her focus in days to come will shift to addressing Jamaica's national debt, which stands at $1.6 trillion - a whopping 130 per cent of gross domestic product and one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere.

The ghost-like 'agreement' with the International Monetary Fund, which the previous government appeared to have badly thrown off course with indefinite pronouncements and an unclear policy direction, will be of paramount importance as Jamaica seeks to tighten its fiscal space and win the confidence of other international lending agencies and potential investors.

Unemployment, which according to recent figures from the Statistical Institute of Jamaica is in the region of 12.6 per cent, will also be a concern in the long run, even with the temporary fertilisation of the economy by a JEEP (Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme) that will only serve to soothe economic aches and pain in the short term.

Poverty too, which shot up rapidly by 66 per cent over the last four years of the JLP administration, will likely attract priority attention by the incoming administration, so too infrastructural development, as the present road network inhibits production on all fronts.

Even the much-tarnished Jamaica Development Infrastructure Programme from which money destined for road improvement curiously found its way onto other avenues that were not clearly defined for such attention, Simpson Miller's team must move swiftly to restore normality and rebuild trust through transparency.

Simpson Miller defied the odds to achieve the lowest inflation rate in the modern era, that of 5.8 per cent by official date, for the fiscal year 2006-2007.

Her training in public administration, in which she acquired a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Union Institute in Miami, Florida, and a diploma in computing, programming and public relations from the same institution, will also be put to the test in tackling corruption, a decades-old scourge of the Jamaican society and her beloved PNP that cost them both at the polls five years ago.

For now, Simpson Miller's proponents say that she is standing tall, having survived yet another attack in advertising. She survived what her backers described as a personal and vulgar media blitz mainly by the JLP affiliate Generation 2000 (G2K); a move which her supporters have said proved to be tantamount to political suicide for the JLP.

With her own mandate finally in hand, Simpson Miller has remounted her steed and is riding off into in the distance, having, again, 'the establishment' and scored heavily in victory.

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