The PNP and the Peter principle

Lloyd B

Thursday, March 15, 2018

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If the recently published Don Anderson polls are to be believed, the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) is in some amount of trouble. Not only is the party some seven points behind the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), but its president, Dr Peter Phillips, is lagging behind JLP leader Andrew Holness in terms of popularity. It is to be noted that polls are usually a snapshot in time and, bearing in mind that the next general election is due constitutionally by 2021, as a seasoned punter would say, “Any number can still play!”

However, these polls have become somewhat significant because of the new leadership at the helm of the PNP, Dr Peter Phillips, who must prove his stripes, and a relatively young JLP leader, Andrew Holness, who is still seen as travelling along a learning curve.

Of course, these latest polls, in real terms, do tell another more disturbing story that the majority of Jamaicans have remained turned off from the electoral process, which in essence means that neither the JLP nor the PNP is seen as being a meaningful choice to form the Government.

In the meantime, though, it is a judgement call for the PNP, who surprisingly lost the last general election because of rampant disunity, obfuscation, and the ill-advised use of financial resources. Ironically, the man who is now facing a serious challenge (internally and externally) by virtue of these latest poll ratings, Dr Peter Phillips, was up to the last time when the PNP was in power seen as one of the country's most successful ministers of finance and the public service.

Here is what the widely referenced Wikipedia has to say about Dr Peter Phillips, inter alia: “In 1994 he was elected Member of Parliament for the constituency of St Andrew East Central, which he is still representing in Parliament since then. He was appointed minister of health from 1995 to 1997, where he modernised the health system in preparation for the 21st century. In 1998 he was appointed minister of transport and works, where he had great success in reorganising the transport system in the Corporate Area and in the rehabilitation and improvement of the road network across the island. He was elected a vice-president in 1999; serving with Portia Simpson Miller. He was subsequently appointed minister of national security where he had significant success in reducing illegal narcotic flows through Jamaica and led a reform for Jamaica's security forces. He twice unsuccessfully ran for president of the PNP, in 2006 and 2008. After his party lost the 2007 general election, Phillips helped his party deliver a decisive victory in 2011 over the Jamaica Labour Party where Portia Simpson Miller selected him to be her minister of finance and the public service. His tenure as finance minister saw Jamaica's economy being placed back on stability after the recession in 2008.”

On the surface, it is fair to say that given the aforementioned achievements, Dr Phillips was and perhaps still is the best person to lead the PNP at this time. What has gone so horribly wrong? To begin with, then Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller blundered when she opted to go the route of a general election, instead of resigning and allowing Dr Phillips to succeed her in a seamless manner, and thus become prime minister. After such a timely move, the PNP would have had enough time to solidify its base and be more election ready.

The million-dollar question is who would have advised her to take such a foolhardy decision, which subsequently saw islandwide fractiousness in the party among incumbents and challengers, thus throwing the party into a tailspin — the perfect scenario for a wily JLP to move in for the kill — which the Andrew Holness team did.

Well, it has been said that hindsight is 20/20 vision, so there is no need to cry over spilt milk, but it can be said without fear or favour that Dr Peter Phillips was dealt a bad hand. To my mind, the PNP may be about to make yet another foolish decision by seeking to dump Dr Peter Phillips at this stage. As a former general secretary and a successful parliamentarian, he has strong organisational skills and is the most experienced and widely talented individual now in the party with respect to governance, and is a patriotic Jamaican who comes to the fore with relatively very little baggage — unlike some of those in the shadows hankering after the leadership post, who also have a lean and hungry look like yon Cassius ready to plunge the daggers in Caesar's back.

The more strategic move would be to rally around Dr Phillips and concentrate on doing the groundwork to make the party an attractive proposition as a Government-in-waiting.

In this regard, it is not too late to repackage Dr Phillips: One of Dr Phillips's most serious challenges has to do with perception and optics. He has been dubbed as “Sleepy” because he has been allegedly caught napping in public spaces and there are those who see him as “too old”, not to mention the social media opinion makers who think that he does not have the necessary “sex appeal/charisma” (whatever that means) like a Michael Manley or “Sister P”. Then again, it was that consummate politician Edward Seaga who reportedly once said, “Charisma can't nyam.” All this would suggest, his detractors argue, that he lacks the “vim, vigour and vitality” for the top job at Jamaica House, or so it seems.

Interestingly, the country's most successful politician in elections to date has been P J Patterson who defied the stereotypical formula espoused by many in the PNP for winning and showed that through organisation and slick politicking, grounded in sound, pragmatic policies, the people can be swayed in the desired direction.

It may well be that the PNP is suffering from an infection of the Peter Principle as espoused by educator Laurence J Peter, which states that the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate's performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. In the corporate world, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and “managers rise to the level of their incompetence”.

Peter, the author, has argued that an excellent engineer may be a poor manager if he or she lacks the interpersonal skills necessary to lead a team. It is hoped that the PNP has not set up Dr Phillips to fail in the overall scheme of things, and it behoves the party president to re-evaluate his leadership role and function so that in the final analysis he does not become a victim of the Peter Principle, but surmounts it.

Lloyd B Smith is a veteran newspaper editor and publisher who has resided in Montego Bay for most of his life where he is popularly known as The Governor. Send comments to the Observer or

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