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PNP continues to suffer a messaging dilemma

Garfield Higgins

Sunday, August 19, 2018

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If beards signified intelligence, the goat would have been a genius. — Nigerian Proverb

Confusion seems to be the order of the day in the People's National Party (PNP). It is easy to understand why. Its messaging is off-key, mainly because of an obsession with inverting reality. It is an open-secret that 89 Old Hope Road is running low on financial inflows. And the failure of PNP president, Dr Peter Phillips, to garner significant political traction on the ground, especially among the youth, has placed an icy grip on his party's momentum.

Political desperation in the PNP is now very near the point of overheating. This should be obvious to all except the most rabid supporters of that party.

The birds, the Black-Bellied Plovers, John Chewits and Banana Quits tweeted warnings many months ago. Say something... anything...about everything is the apparent messaging strategy of Peter Phillips's PNP. It continues to cough up diminishing political returns.

The over-reliance on fake news by PNP surrogates, on social media especially, has not won the political scalps which they evidently expected from their use of character assassination and reputation ruin. Legal expert and former coordinator of the graduate forum at Harvard Law School, Dr Aminu Gamawa says, “Nothing damages a candidate's brand [party's brand, my insert] like anchoring his/her campaign on fake news or false information. Credibility is important, especially if you want new supporters. Instead of fabricating false accomplishments, you should focus on the good things he/she has truly done or accomplished.” The birds sing that the country should prepare for greater acts of political desperation from the PNP.

Last Sunday Dr Phillips spoke at a party meeting in the constituency of St Catherine North Eastern. Among other things Phillips said, “What kinda Government will see the cost of fuel gone up, the cost of tyres gone up, and hold the price the taxi man charge to the same level.” One does not need a degree in theoretical physics to figure that Phillips was calling for the Government to increase bus and taxi fares for the nearly 380,000 Jamaicans who use public transportation daily.

Many were stunned by Phillips's call for fare increases. I was not one. Recall basic amenities, like electricity, water and roads were largely neglected for nearly 18 1/2 years when the PNP's Harry “Peep-Peep” Douglas was the Member of Parliament for St Mary South Eastern. Last year, while numerous roads and other critical services were being delivered to the St Mary South Eastern constituents, Dr Phillips made these among other comments at a rally in Richmond, St Mary: “All of a sudden them come like rat bat ah night, ah repair roads, at 12 o'clock, and 10 o'clock ah night, and one o'clock ah mawnin.” ( CVM, October 26, 2017)

Phillips did not cry out in a similar fashion at reports in the media that the night before Shahine Robinson and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) first prevailed over his party, people affiliated with the PNP were seen with lanterns and flashlights repairing roads in St Ann North Eastern. Just in case Phillips does not remember that sad episode, maybe he remembers when his former general secretary told Nationwide News Network that the PNP might have got 500 fewer votes in the Westmoreland Central by-election if some supporters of the PNP had not bought votes. When asked if the PNP bought votes, Burke said: “I am not going to deny that there are members of the PNP who made or fulfilled promises...Some of our supporters felt that if they did not do what they had to we would have reduced our majority or lose.” When asked how many votes for the PNP he thought might have been bought, Burke said: “I don't think it could have been more than 500 votes.” Phillips might also remember that in the Westmoreland Central by-election there were reports in the media of mobile ATMs from which some voters made handsome withdrawals. Of note is the fact that the Westmoreland Central by-election was a sure win for the PNP.

Bribery and variant forms of it have been part of the electoral landscape in Jamaica for decades. The big difference now is that it seems to be ubiquitous, if not a prerequisite enticement for a seemingly critical mass of voters who have been marginalised socially, economically and politically. I believe we can best begin to eradicate this problem by liberating more our people, at a faster rate, through the provision of economic, social and political opportunities.

But back to the obvious messaging turmoil in the PNP: Dr Phillips made the call for bus and taxi fare increases last Sunday, by Tuesday of the same week The Gleaner carried this headline: 'Opposition denies calling for transport fare increase'. The story said, among other things: “The Opposition People's National Party is denying claims that it has called on the Government to increase bus and taxi fares.” The shadow spokesperson for transport and works, Mikael Phillips, was clear, “We are not asking for a fare increase.” It seems the right hand in the PNP does not know what the left is doing. The father says one thing, the son the opposite. Are they competing for dominance in the arena of public sentiments?

The birds shriek that the country needs to keep a keen eye on the political dissonance involving former General Secretary Peter Bunting and spokesperson on finance Mark Golding on one hand, and Dr Peter Phillips on the other. Recall that recently Peter Bunting openly questioned the usefulness of the upcoming vice-presidential contests on Nationwide News Network ( NNN). He said, among other things: “...He's calling for the posts of regional chairmen and vice presidents to be merged. Six candidates are currently vying for the PNP's four vice-president positions. But Bunting says the position doesn't add any value to the party.” ( NNN, July 24, 2018)

Bunting has promised to table a resolution at next month's PNP conference in an effort to effect the change. He evidently will not be silenced by his deportation to the political Elba, nicknamed shadow spokesperson for industry, investment and competitiveness. What I believe was an upstaging of Dr Phillips in Parliament a few weeks ago on the Petrojam saga must still be ringing in Phillips's ears. Bunting also continues to speak on issues of national security, which is the shadow responsibility of Fitz Jackson, a confidant of Phillips. Except for the occasion of the sectoral debate, I cannot recall any notable public utterance by Bunting on industry, investment and competitiveness. It is quite interesting that Mark Golding, a confidant of Peter Bunting, has recently started to echo Bunting's thoughts on the lack of utility of the vice-president positions in the PNP. Golding, made these among other comments at a Rae Town PNP divisional conference this July: “It (the internal election) could be a thing weh mash wi down and set wi back, and wi nuh want that right now because the Labourites dem a gwaan wid enough almshouse inna di country, and wi have to be strong to save Jamaica from them.” ( The Gleaner, August 13, 2018)

Is there some kind of September 2019 bid scenario for party leadership swirling around somewhere in Golding and Bunting's demand for a change in the PNP's VP configuration? Is it that they foresee that a future leadership bid by Peter Bunting would get at best lukewarm support from the four likely winners of the upcoming VP contests?

Peter Phillips seems wedded to the socialist traditions and structures of old. I believe a political fallout between his ideas and those of the likes of Golding, Bunting and others in the PNP is inevitable. Agenda setting seems not to be Phillips's forte.

Speaking of agenda setting, Dr Phillips is curiously busy trying to set the agenda of the Andrew Holness-led Administration, while, as we say in local parlance, “fi him business a spoil”.

I believe this Gleaner headline and its related story is more evidence of political anachronism: 'Shut it down! — PNP president tells Holness to give up power if he cannot replace Wheatley.' The story said, among other things: “The prime minister...I don't know what he saying about other ministers, but if him can't find one, him four up at Jamaica House. Mike Henry was a minister before, Warmington was minister in the previous Administration, Karl Samuda was a minister in the previous Administration.” This, to me, is another example of the PNP's message deficit. Phillips's attempt to hopefully set the agenda of Prime Minister Holness fell flat on its face. Dr Phillips's utterance came off as sour and unstatesmanlike. The story went on to say, “Phillips also rejected Holness's intervention into the affairs of the ministry through a review of boards and the laying out of policy direction. 'Is that not the job of the minister to be appointed,' Phillips questioned.”

When things go wrong in an Administration the minister with the specific portfolio responsibility is not the only one given a shellacking. Dr Phillips, as leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, surely must know that, ultimately, the buck stops with the prime minister. Phillips's lopsided attempt at messaging capsized. The public reactions to his remarks on social and traditional media were overwhelmingly condemnatory, and justly so.

No sleeves

Dr Phillips went further and tightened the political noose around his own neck. According to the Old Lady of North Street: “Phillips complained that while the prime minister has been silent on the matters of corruption and on who will replace Wheatley, 'dem talking about dress code.' ” Phillips was in Parliament when Prime Minister Holness made this statement on the Petrojam matter: “As I've said, we are now documenting our decisions, and in short order we will be saying to the public what it is that we will be doing, not just to address the shortcomings and weaknesses and the allegations of corruption, but what is necessary to ensure the viability of Petrojam.” Is this silence, Dr Phillips? And the subsequent corrective actions of the prime minister on Petrojam, how is that silence?

Then there was Phillips's seeming dismissal of the 'no-sleeveless' issue. Does Dr Phillips know that for many years in this country dozens of women have been refused access to important public services simply because some officious individual[s] decided that apparel, without sleeves, in a tropical country, was an unforgivable sin? Phillips's comment on the sleeveless issue came across as insensitive and showed a political leader who was out of touch with the pulse of public sentiment. Tone deafness, Dr Phillips, is extremely costly in politics.

Prime Minister Holness is to be commended for his instruction to suspend the long-standing 'no-sleeveless' practice which some legal experts say is not based in law. Historian and gender research expert Professor Verene Shepherd, prominent attorney-at-law Bert Samuels, journalist Cliff Hughes, human rights advocate Susan Goffe, and the dozens of Jamaicans who raised strong and unrelenting objections to the 'no-sleeveless' policy have done a mighty good deed.

Murders down

There is a 17 per cent decline in murders and other violent crimes, according to the latest Jamaica Constabulary Force statistics. I heard Peter Bunting on the radio last Thursday saying the reduction in crime is due to police saturation. Recall that Bunting told us that the Bill to effect the zones of special operations initiative was “unnecessary”. Bunting is doubtless wiping egg from his face, his stinginess in giving due credit is understandable. There is a old adage, “He who feels it knows it.”

Last Wedneday's Gleaner headline, 'SOE pushing murders down in St James; tourism up', shows that the Administration's crime plan is working. The article said, among other things: “It's not 'perfect', and an alternative is quite welcome, but the ongoing state of public emergency (SOE) in the parish of St James has been the catalyst for murders trending down, according to Winston Lawson, president of the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce.

“Lawson made the assertion yesterday in response to the latest crime statistics, which revealed that 60 murders took place in the western Jamaica parish between January 1 and August 11 this year — 128 fewer when compared to the corresponding period in 2017. This translates to a 68 per cent decrease in murders in the crime-torn parish.

“ 'The SOE is something that the chamber continues to laud. We are very appreciative of the results coming from [it],' said Lawson.”

Jamaica's best days are ahead. I am betting on Jamaica, full stop!

Freedom is never given; it is won. — A Philip Randolph

Garfield Higgins is an educator; journalist; and advisor to the minister of education, youth and information. Send comments to the Observer or higgins160@yahoo.com.

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