Thu | Sep 20, 2018

Mark Ricketts | Whither goes the PNP?

Published:Sunday | March 11, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Mark Ricketts
Despite his huffing and puffing, Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips and the Opposition are lagging badly behind Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his administration.
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Undoubtedly, Peter Phillips must be taking some comfort from the recent RJR-Gleaner Don Anderson poll that showed more than 50 per cent of Jamaicans unhappy with the direction in which the Government is going. Bolstering the party's optimism even more was the poll's declaration that more people (59 per cent) indicated that their personal economic situation was worse off.

These poll numbers, if indicative of the start of a worsening trend, could portend success for the People's National Party (PNP) three years down the road when the general election is called in 2021.

Further boosting morale for the party faithful, or at least straws at which to clutch, is the opposition leader naming representatives in constituencies from Portland to Papine where the highly respected defence lawyer, Valerie Neita-Robertson, will take her case to the people, and the vibrant ex-JLP parliamentarian Joan Gordon-Webley will titillate the electorate's fantasy with her attempt to get them to swap green for orange.

These are, however, sideshows to the major issues facing Peter Phillips and the PNP that were underscored in recent by-elections where the party went down to defeat in non-garrison constituencies.

The loss is of significance because a major thrust of the JLP in securing victory in the last general election was its promise to offer people safety and security by dramatically reducing crime. The reverse has, however, happened as homicides continue to climb at unacceptable levels. Even so, the PNP could not gain the upper hand.

In addition, Prime Minister Holness' misstep in the appointment of the chief justice in an acting role, which brought such outcry from the public, and the degree of infrastructural deficit with dilapidated bridges and a plethora of potholes, should have provided the opposition party with sufficient ammunition to avoid the by-election results being a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, for the PNP, at no time did the governing party have to break a sweat in being assured of victory in the St Andrew North West constituency.

 

ANOTHER LOSS

 

It is to be hoped that PNP supporters do not use the well-worn 'safe seat' argument to justify yet another loss. The last general election was a squeaker, with just a one-seat margin of victory for the JLP. With so close an election and with the leader of the PNP, Dr Phillips, earning his spurs as former minister of finance who did an outstanding job in getting the country to accept the stringent demands of a structural adjustment programme, how then could one buy into the seemingly well-rehearsed 'safe seat' explanation? Yes, if the last general election wasn't close and Phillips was not lauded as a credible finance minister, then the safe-seat argument would be plausible.

Dr Phillips' ascendancy to the leadership of the party occurred just over a year ago, and combined with his long years in government, his multi-ministerial posts, including the powerful Ministry of Finance and the Public Service, the good doctor should have endeared himself sufficiently to the public to force not only a questioning, but a denigration, of the JLP Government's performance, especially in light of the horrible homicide numbers and the absence of strong growth performance.

But Phillips hasn't fared well currently in the public's evaluation of his performances. The results of the local government elections, just prior to his assuming the presidency of his party, were horrible, and the rousing defeat in both non-garrison by-elections do not bode well for him and his party. This was borne out by the recent Anderson polls in which the party recorded a high unfavourability rating of 56 per cent, exceeded only by a more unimpressive rating of 60 per cent by the party leader.

The credibility of the safe-seat argument was given short shrift in a 1999 by-election when Shahine Robinson, now JLP's minister of labour and social security, had the deck stacked against her. She was contesting a seat in St Ann, fertile PNP territory held by a PNP stalwart prior to his resignation.

Her challenger was a member of the governing PNP party benefiting from a campaign choreographed by the legendary organiser and master tactician, the then Prime Minister P.J. Patterson.

In Robinson's mind, defeat was never an option. Sweat, toil and strategising were the means by which she could overcome. No stone was left unturned and an extremely safe seat flipped.

Why did Robinson succeed and Dr Peter Phillips and his party, with so much going for them, allowed a one-seat disadvantage to become a three-seat disadvantage. For one, there is a perceived difference in energy levels, passion, intensity, and even ideas. The PNP leadership is lumbering and is without gusto. It seems to be just flailing at the windmills in contrast to the PM and his team, who appear unstoppable, untouchable, and unassailable. The differences in campaigning and marketing say it all.

In Jamaica, our Westminster-style parliamentary system validates Cabinet government, yet here is Peter Phillips, at a time when his party has no momentum and no money to fight election battles, threatening to take the JLP Government to court over the National ID System legislation. The idea was so far-fetched, it had no resonance with the public and fizzled like a partially lit thunderbolt.

 

TAKE IT TO THE STREETS

 

Shortly after that, and just four days before last week's crucial by-election in which the party seemed incapable of mounting any serious challenge, Phillips threatened to take disputes with Government to the streets if the country could not rely on assurances by ministers in Parliament. But the Cabinet can justifiably revisit and realign its priorities because the Cabinet, directed by the prime minister, is the principal instrument of policy. That's one of the advantages of winning elections.

Dr Phillips has to ask himself whether, in terms of communication, messaging, strategy, and policy, he has done enough to win over the public to threaten a Joshua-like mass mobilisation march as he takes on the Government in the streets. He clearly hasn't.

Watching the Opposition walk out of Parliament during very serious debates on the Budget and the NIDS legislation was sad and akin to an arrogant display of juvenile disgust where children, grabbing their marbles, refuse to play anymore because they didn't win or didn't get what they wanted.

The opposition leader must be cognisant of the words of that great Canadian parliamentarian Stanley Knowles: "Freedom always dies when criticism ends." One other thing should be noted, "There is a big difference between making a fuss and making a difference."

- Mark Ricketts is an economist, author, and lecturer living in California. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com.