Missed opportunities: Inertia stymied Peter Phillips and the PNP

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Missed opportunities: Inertia stymied Peter Phillips and the PNP

Aldin Bellinfantie

Sunday, November 15, 2020

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Between 2012 and 2016 Peter Phillips, in the Ministry of Finance, delivered the ultimate “modernisation” that had evaded nearly all finance ministers before him, from both the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and People's National Party (PNP). For the first time the PNP moved from under the cloud of “economic mismanagement” and took on the reputation of a party recognised for “financial stability” — a designation that was usually ascribed only to JLP's administrations.

All governments tax and spend, but Phillips destroyed the myth that only PNP governments do it. He removed much of the direct and autocratic work of the ministry by being more consultative in decision-making. This is evidenced by the acts of giving more independence to the Bank of Jamaica (BOJ) and the setting up of the Economics Programme Oversight Committee (EPOC) with the principal objective to monitor the reduction of the national debt and raise the sustainable growth rate of our national output.

In order to achieve this objective the Government committed to implementing revenue, expenditure and debt management measures to ensure that the debt goes down in relation to gross domestic product (GDP). This commitment entails the achievement of annual primary surpluses of 7.5 per cent of GDP over the life of the programme. He achieved all this and was commended not only by the Jamaican business sector, but international agencies such as the World Bank, global financial rating agencies and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Peter Phillips was seen as not only one of the most credible ministers of finance, but also when combined with all his previous ministerial portfolios, he is seen as a brilliant manager, and was in fact dubbed as “the man with the Midas touch”.

Notwithstanding this image, the question that loomed large and may never be answered is: Could this translate into successful leadership of the PNP, and eventually also make him a credible prime minister? This was answered, in part, on the night of September 3, 2020 when Peter David Phillips effectively resigned from the PNP, having loss the general election.

Sharing blame?

I believe that the entire leadership of the PNP over the last 30 years is to be blamed for the plight that the party currently finds itself. Hence, both P J Patterson and Portia Simpson Miller are criticised for the emasculation of the PNP Government as a force for change. There is no doubt that many rated Patterson's regime as good in the administration of the Government as prime minister, but he was rated poor in his leadership of the party. Simpson Miller, with her mass appeal, was thought to be able to mobilise and therefore transform the party back into a movement for change. But loved as she was by the grass roots of the party, she was never able to command the respect needed to bring change throughout the length and breadth of the party.

It was, however, hoped that Phillips, with his academic knowledge of economics, government and international politics, would be aware that he should not confuse effective management of government with the leadership of a party that held engrained and a long-standing socialist philosophy.

For we should be reminded that Adam Smith, the great sixteenth century Scottish economist, suffered from similar confused criticism. His seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, is regarded as the 'bible' of right-wing, market-driven economics, but that is probably not how Smith himself saw it.

In a lecture at Glasgow University around the time of the publication of his treatise in 1776, Smith said: “The labour and time of the poor is in civilised countries sacrificed to maintaining the rich in ease and luxury.” This is hardly a sentiment backing up the need for an unregulated fat-cat culture.

To succeed, therefore, Phillips needed to be able to navigate waters as treacherous and difficult as anything he had ever come across in his career. He had to demonstrate not only strong work ethic, and the fact that those close to him said he “just never stops believing he has more to learn and give”.

One such learning he never seemed to have mastered was to overcome his charismatic flaw, which some saw as a problem, especially for a leader. Where his predecessor, Simpson Miller, was the consummate actor, Phillips's lack of theatricality left him accused of being unable to modulate his known lukewarm method of delivery. Again, some would say that Patterson, too, had this affliction, but, in a sense, an effective prime minister in getting the country to move in certain direction to enable moderate infrastructural, economic and social changes. Phillips, therefore, failed to summon up his combined experiences for the difficult task of ensuring more than just moderate changes are made to the party that he has devoted most of his adult life.

Major re-engineering and modernisation was required of the PNP, which would have allowed him the medium through which to execute the well-overdue development of the country. More importantly, he should have summoned up the willpower, sternness, and strength of leaders such as Michael Manley to control a party that is made up of all kinds and still be able to motivate not just PNP sympathisers, but everyone in a nation-building effort. I strongly believe that if he had done that, he would be prime minister today, and ensure his place in the annals of great Jamaican leaders.

Modernising the PNP

The PNP has meticulously conducted analyses on its performances following each election cycle, particularly on occasions where the results are disappointing. Similar analyses were done after the recent 2016 election and there, seemingly, is the intention now again after this 2020 defeat.

All previous analyses have pointed to several factors as to the reasons for the party's poor performance. Some point to a vacuum of leadership at the local level, which cannot be divorced from the attitude of the leadership at the national level as it relates to local concerns. This lack of responsiveness to local concerns leads to alienation of the ordinary party members. Another reason seems to be the inability of the party machinery to communicate effectively with the general populace.

It is my belief that these analyses should, however, go much further, because some party followers remain unmindful of the new and current realities, and continue — like ostriches with heads in the sand — dancing to the old tunes and harping on the great achievements of the Norman Manley's PNP of the late 1950s, Michael Manley's social engineering of the 1970s, and Patterson's infrastructural projects of the 1990s through to the first decade of the 21st century. These achievements should not be forgotten, but lest we also forget, those emotions are not felt by almost 40 per cent of the electorate who knows very little about these leaders and also take their achievements for granted, as “matter of fact” and normal for any civilised country.

Of note is that, in many parts of the democratic world, political parties are the object of deep contempt by the public, yet they fail to show concern about improving their image or performance. In the Strange Death of Liberal England, written nearly 90 years ago, George Dangerfield charted the decline and collapse of the Liberal Party. He stated that, “No party, no matter whatever their history or achievements, has a divine right to govern, and the central importance for parties that want to survive and win, they must have an ability to reform and reinvent themselves and strive continually to make themselves relevant to their era.”

And so, it is here in Jamaica, a once great party, the People's National Party, also faces its own anxieties in an era where it must seek renewed relevance. In this era, where the once-revered global community has started to show cracks and new set of regional blocs have started to emerge, accelerating technology, new agencies for social and political changes, and new and diverse means of communication. In this situation, Jamaica, as an island of extraordinary opportunity, where we are geographically positioned close to the largest market, the USA, we are also well-educated, well-trained, well-connected, and well-positioned to take advantage of all these opportunities.

Opportunities and challenges of the future need to be grasped by PNP, not just those who form the Government, but members of every group, division, constituency, and also sympathisers in every community. As mentioned before, the trust in politics is at a low ebb, not just in Jamaica, but globally, but people's connections to their communities or their concerns for the world are not. That tells us that the way we engage and deliver change as a party must be engaged in a continuous evolving process — just as it has evolved from the days when the party was founded or as it has been responding to the changes in every decade since its formation.

I do not set out to be prescriptive or even attempt to offer a conclusive formula to the party and its new leader. I cannot provide all the answers, but must consider some expectations for the next two decades. It should prompt every member and help every local party group to question how we should re-engineer ourselves so that, as a party, we can grasp the opportunities and challenges that will shape our communities and, by extension, our country.

It is the answers to those questions that will ensure that change is not a challenge to the party, but the route to a new, more just, and more exciting Jamaica. It is simple a call to attention to Dangerfield's reminder that: “No party, no matter whatever their history or achievements, has a divine right to govern and the central importance for parties that want to survive and win they must have an ability to reform and reinvent themselves and strive continually to make themselves relevant to their era.”

Aldin Bellinfantie, EdD, is vice-president of the International University of the Caribbean and adjunct lecturer at The University of the West Indies with concentration on educational leadership, management and supervision. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or abellinfantie@gmail.com.


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