Saturday, December 16, 2017
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In the court of public opinion: Portia vs the pundits



Chris-BurnsOpposition leader and president of the People’s National Party (PNP) Portia Simpson Miller has announced her resignation from both positions. In so doing, she also revealed her intention to make her contribution to the 2017/2018 national budget debate in her capacity as leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition — representing the last time she will be doing so.


Unsurprisingly, her announcement has caused a strange bout of political vertigo and has set off an unnecessary maelstrom of criticism among some in the political commentariat.


Here they go again. They simply “cannot see the wood for the trees”. In other words, they are unable to understand the clear political implications for the PNP, in general, but for Dr Peter Phillips in particular, because they are too involved. Isn’t is criminally ironic how many in the political commentariat are quick to dream of a kinder and gentler society; yet, when it comes to Portia, they allow those desires to take a back seat in preference to intellectual crudity?


This same clique is “quick on the draw” to proclaim, “Anger is not a solution to problem-solving!” Still, they are swift to exonerate themselves for adhering to the precepts of that same proclamation. So staunch is their collective dislike of her, and so brutal their disdain for her intellect, that they cannot see beyond their own folly, or manage to rise above their unwillingness to give her the benefit of the doubt in this instance.


There are some political pundits and analysts who feel that Portia’s contribution to this particular budget debate, coming as it will at the end of her tenure as party president and Opposition leader, is tantamount to political malpractice. They seem to think that she should “just pack her bags and go”, however ungracious an exit or unpopular a desire. To them, there ought to be no national platform for her to recite her contribution to Jamaica’s development, save and except for last week’s National Executive Committee meeting in Manchester.


Worse still, they are carrying on as if her speech in Parliament would desecrate that body were she to use the Parliament or parliamentary privileges to encase her legacy. They are behaving as if Portia Simpson Miller is the worst thing that has ever happened to Jamaica’s politics or Parliament. Little do they know that, warts and all, her supporters — and even some of her ardent critics — are of the opposite view. Her supporters strongly oppose any action — real or imagined — that purports to use her and then dash her to the kerb. Again, in the court of public opinion, and in the matter of Portia versus the pundits, Portia Simpson Miller prevails.


Readers who care to recall already know that I have been relentless in my disapproval of many aspects of Simpson Miller’s tenure as party president and prime minister. My sharp criticisms of her leadership style have earned the ire of many of her supporters, who prefer to treat her with kid gloves and behave as if she is the sacred cow — which she is not. They have always felt that I have been “teking set pon har”, or “bully-ragging” her without cause. I remain unremorseful for questioning her preparedness for the premiership after she succeeded P J Patterson in 2006.


I still question her political skills and continue to evaluate the effectiveness with which she used the enormous political capital she possessed. It remains unfathomable to me that, after 40-odd years in Parliament, there is not a single piece of legislation that bears her authorship, or anything that can be quickly identified as “her signature policy” or legacy.


While I remain unapologetic about objecting to various aspects of her leadership style, it would be substantially dishonest of me to overlook some of the deep-seated, socio-cultural biases with which many of us have treated her over the years. We have not treated her fairly, simply because of her humble upbringing, distance-learning educational background, her rural lilt and, more particularly, despite earning a baccalaureate degree, her seeming intellectual incuriosity.

She is only human — human enough to express the hurt she felt and experienced during her time at the wicket. So, for anyone to downplay the humanness in her recent expressions of disappointment or hurt would amount to a show of inhumanity.


This is the same woman who overcame some of the most brutal and vulgar rumours about the state of her physical and mental health. Even if these rumours prove true, no one deserves such unkindness and sheer schadenfreude treatment from the very people she served.


It would also be highly pretentious to deny an inconvenient truth about the prevalence of class prejudice in Jamaica and how we have allowed those prejudices to colour our assessment of Portia Simpson Miller — the person and the politician. Many in the so-called intelligentsia are well aware of this fact, however much they try to deny it. Make no bones about it, a large cohort of the Jamaican citizenry continues to experience this kind of prejudice first-hand. 


Consequently, many are sympathetic towards Portia and her constant struggles throughout her tenure as PNP president and prime minister.


Love her or hate her, Portia has already secured her place in history by becoming the first female prime minister of a largely sexist, but at the same time “distantly misogynistic” society. She, with the help of many professional advisers (especially during her tenure as minister of labour and, at another time, minister of tourism), has done well in the areas she served.


That she led Jamaica through one of the roughest periods of economic adjustment and realignment is testament of her appeal to the masses. And, while Peter Phillips led on the policy side of the ledger, none of the recent economic achievements the Andrew Holness-led Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) now enjoys would have been possible without the imprimatur of then Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller.


Legendary disrespect


The blatant disrespect shown to her office as prime minister was legendary in many ways. She could never win. Even if she was able to move a mountain, there are those who would begrudge her strength by declaring the mountain to be nothing more than a molehill. It is as funny as hell, because some with the loudest mouths cannot lift a hammer!


We must disrobe ourselves of the hypocrisy and call a spade a spade; our treatment of her reminds me of what obtained in the United States’ Republican-dominated Congress in its treatment of former President Barack Obama and his legislative agenda, all because he was a black man occupying the White House. Forget the Pollyanna-type talk about “America, the post-racial society”. Although there has been significant progress in race relations and civil rights advancements, serious racial biases and socio-cultural differences remain.


Whatever you may wish to say about her, however, Portia Simpson Miller continues to enjoy tremendous grass roots support and cross-partisan appeal throughout Jamaica. For as long as she remains active, possesses the mental acuity and demonstrates physical agility, Portia’s presence and value-added shall remain vital to the future of the PNP in the same way that P J Patterson continues to be an asset to the party. Consequent on that, any attempt to marginalise her contribution, or to silence her, even at this late stage in the game, could backfire. Therefore, on the issue of political relevance, in the court of public opinion, and in the matter of Portia versus the pundits, Portia Simpson Miller prevails.


Next at bat


Her heir apparent Dr Peter Phillips, along with other senior officers in the PNP, knows this too well. No scholarship is necessary in predicting the blowback any such untidy tactic would create for him. He is a man still in the throes of overcoming the fallout from his unsuccessful bids to succeed her as party president.


It is heartening that Phillips has decided not to allow the views of a few sweet-talking, haughty, agenda-inspired political commentators to carry the day. He is no political dunce. Hence, his public disagreement with suggestions that Portia should have fast-tracked her exit to allow him to participate in the upcoming budget debate as leader of the Opposition could earn him additional support among delegates who continue to “carry bad feelings” for him.


Better yet, those clamouring to see the back of Portia had better listen to Peter Phillips’s own words on the matter: “There is one president at a time for the PNP, and during the period of the budget debate Comrade Portia Simpson Miller will be leader of the Opposition [and] the president of the party, and she has every right, if she so chooses, to make the address reserved for the leader of the Opposition in that budget debate…”


Obviously, Peter Phillips knows how important Portia is, and shall remain, to his political success as party president and Opposition leader. He is sensible enough not to “throw out the baby with the bath water” irrespective of inveiglement from political pundits about how irrelevant her political chops might be to his success.


Therefore, on the issue of political pundits arguing against her having the opportunity to address the Parliament for the final time in her capacity as the Opposition leader, in the court of public opinion, and in the matter of Portia versus the pundits, again, Portia prevails.


There is no value in continuing to push the false narrative that some political commentators are espousing that because “Parliament will most likely pay tribute to her…” then she should have resigned well ahead of the budget debate to allow Peter Phillips, as the freshly minted leader of the Opposition, to articulate his vision for the country.


Peter has always gone beyond the “crease” of his portfolio responsibility to articulate his broad vision for the country. In his position as campaign director and, currently, as spokesman on finance, Dr Phillips has offered his comprehensive views on governance, national security, health, justice, education, among many other positions on national policy. His budget contributions over the years have been erudite and equally all-encompassing.


In a strange sense — and most certainly in terms of his understanding of the political economy — he has been like Bruce Golding (his political nemesis) minus “Dudus”. The fact that Portia’s budget presentation happens after his will not, in any way, overshadow his position as de facto Opposition leader. Hence, in the court of public opinion, and in the matter of Portia versus the pundits, Portia prevails.


Prevail she willIt is well known that Jamaicans do not tolerate losers. In fact, we loathe defeat, however well earned. We see elements of this dislike all the time in our treatment of our athletes. That Portia Simpson Miller lost the February 25, 2016 general election, which she should not have called at the time she did, pitted her against many who thought she exercised poor political judgement.


However, as my mother is wont to counsel, “We may know our plans well, but we do not know our destiny…” Therein lies the rub. Chances are she could still have lost the election were they held at the end of her five-year term. At some point, we have to grow enough foresight to see “victory in defeat” and learn how to move on.


It may not be fashionable, but we need to find a better way of treating our political leaders — even those with whom we disagree. Everyone is at liberty to dislike whomever they choose. There are no legal requirements to like anyone. It is an entirely different kettle of fish, however, to allow political superficiality to motivate us to censor someone, on the eve of her retirement as party leader, who has contributed so much to her country.


Yet, that is exactly what some are attempting to do by arguing against Portia making her final contribution to the national budget debates in her capacity as Opposition leader, when we know she is less likely to use the time to offer a dystopian view of Jamaica or encourage societal anarchy.


Without contest, Portia is most likely to use the opportunity to promote stability and inspire hope. As she is most likely to do, she will act in the country’s best interest, and for that, in the court of public opinion, and in the matter of Portia versus the pundits, Portia shall prevail.

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