The future of the PNP – Part 1

Canute
Thompson

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

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IN early 2017, when it became obvious that Peter Phillips would succeed Portia Simpson Miller as president of the People's National Party (PNP), I wrote a piece entitled 'Peter Phillips and the future of the PNP', published in the Jamaica Observer on February 5, 2017. In that piece I suggested that Phillips's presidency placed four principal tasks on him, namely:

(1) restoring the image of the PNP as an organised party

(2) defining a clear, compelling, and attainable vision for Jamaica

(3) building the profile of the PNP as a transparent and accountable entity

(4) making the party attractive to youth

I am of the view that those tasks remain relevant, but with the announcement by Peter Bunting that he will be challenging Phillips for leadership of the party, I would add a fifth:

(5) uniting the party into a cohesive political machinery, guided by a shared political philosophy of inclusive economic growth and development and a governance ideology which eschews corruption.

With a leadership contest clearly on, these five tasks will be the mandate of the person who triumphs, if the party is to regain power any time soon.

THE ISSUES FACING PETER PHILLIPS

Most persons would agree that Peter Phillips has served Jamaica well, having worked in several portfolios since 1989, when he vacated his post at The University of the West Indies to serve in the Michael Manley Cabinet. Over the period, he served as minister of health, transport, national security, and finance. He is to be credited with having rescued the Jamaican economy in 2012 after the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Administration of Bruce Golding, with Audley Shaw as finance minister, blew the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreement signed in 2009. The hard-won stabilisation of the Jamaican economy, engineered by Phillips, has led us to a place where the Government was able to cut taxes.

But, in the same way most people would agree that Phillips has served Jamaica well, most would agree that the party he has led since 2017 is in deep trouble politically, if recent polls are accurate. Notwithstanding Phillips's personal popularity ratings, the historical data suggest that the bigger picture is about the party. As president, it was and is Phillips's duty to fix, drawing on whatever skills are needed so to do. To appreciate the issues which faced, and continue to face, Phillips as leader of the PNP, we need to look at the history of the popularity decline of the party over the last 22 years and, more specifically, the 20 years prior to his ascension to the presidency.

Table 1 shows that the PNP recorded a steady decline in its percentage share of the popular vote in the four general elections from 1993 to 2007. By contrast, the JLP recorded a steady increase in its nominal share over the same period and an impressive pattern of percentage increase between 1997 and 2007. The general election in 2011 was somewhat of an oddity as the results were affected by the “Dudus” factor. By 2016, a combination of missteps by the PNP and the effective trickery of the $1.5-m tax-free threshold landed the JLP a win by a margin of 0.3 per cent, or just over 3,000 votes, repeating somewhat an even thinner margin of 2007 when less than one per cent separated the parties, though a higher nominal figure of about 5,000 votes.

THE PNP AS A VIABLE OPPOSITION

The recent Supreme Court ruling on the National Identification and Registration Act (NIRA) highlights the important role of the Opposition in a democracy, given that it was the Opposition PNP which had brought action challenging the constitutionality of the law. The ruling of the high court coming a week after the PNP had lost the Portland Eastern by-election served to give the PNP some measure of renewed confidence. That confidence seems to have waned somewhat as the party has failed to use the court victory to catalyse its popularity and use it as a template for taking on the Government in other areas.

Part of the problem that the PNP has faced in its role as the Opposition party is that having been the architect of the current economic programme being implemented by the Government, with some measure of success, it is hard-pressed to find ongoing policy issues on which to criticise the Government. In addition, the funding for the massive road infrastructure projects being implemented by the Government (although the implementation is being done badly) was secured by the PNP. The challenge these two realities pose for the PNP is that the areas in which it may criticise Government appear limited.

But there are many areas on which the PNP may take on the Government, both by way of opposing and proposing, if it is to remain viable, and this will be the task of whomever emerges as leader after the contest is over.

The areas of opposing include:

(i) class action suit by businesses located on Hagley Park Road and other areas which have suffered losses due to inadequate notice and consultation prior on the commencement of the infrastructure works — many of these businesses are in the constituency represented by Phillips;

(ii) representation of businesses and households affected by the frequent lack of water resulting from damaged mains;

(iii) the injustice being done to farmers being evicted from at Bernard Lodge, and prime farm lands being sold to the 'big man';

(iv) the prime minister's continued failure to come clean on the Petrojam issue; stating what he knew, when he knew it, and what he did about it, not only in relation to the salary for the former human resources manager (for which three separate figures have been given concerning her severance package) but the $97-million wall which had been estimated at $30 million);

(v) the Ruel Reid issue – again what did the prime minister know and when he first came into that knowledge;

(vi) the inexplicable long delay in Holness receiving clearance with his integrity filings;

(vii) the failure of the Government to develop and promulgate a credible crime plan which is respectful of the rights;

(viii) the curious reliance on the states of emergency as a crime-fighting tool in violation of the constitution;

(ix) the many occasions on which the Andrew Holness (both as prime minister and leader of the Opposition) has ran afoul of the constitution which raise questions about his fitness for office – as most persuasively argued by Justice Minister Delroy Chuck who had argued that a leader of a political party against whom the court had twice ruled in a constitutional matter is not fit to be prime minister.

It is my submission that the future of the PNP lies firstly in its ability to convey to the people that it understands the issues which affect their quality of life and to propose solutions to those problems and show what it would do differently in Government. This is the role of every Opposition party in a democracy.

GOVERNMENT-IN-WAITING?

While the PNP should engage the country on the foregoing areas in which the Administration is failing the people and falling short of its solemn commitments, its focus cannot be merely to oppose, but more importantly to propose alternative policy options and approaches. Despite what may appear to be narrow a corridor for contrast and challenge, there are several areas in which the PNP can draw contrasts and advance a more ambitious and inclusive people-focused and sustainable development agenda.

But challenges which face the PNP's lie not only in finding ways to advance positions in opposing and proposing, its challenges also lie in the factors which account for its declining popularity, and losses in two by-elections, most recently and embarrassingly Portland Eastern. These factors highlight the important question of the perception that the public has of the PNP.

The analysis will continue.

Dr Canute Thompson is chair of the People's National Party's Policy Commission, as well as head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning and lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of four books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.


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