Published: Sunday | April 1, 2012

"The most successful politician … says what the people are thinking the most often and in the loudest voice." -Theodore Roosevelt

ELECTION WINNERS listen to the people and say what they want to hear. Portia Simpson Miller understands this better than any other politician in the country, which is why she is far and away the most loved. Her 'secret' can be summed up in one word - respect. She doesn't talk down to the masses, pays attention to what she hears the common man saying and makes ordinary Jamaicans feel their concerns are important to her too. It's simple common courtesy, really. Why do so few of our other leaders understand that, as Miss Lou used to say, "Howdy and tenky bruk no square"?

The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) seems unable to even grasp the concept. Their December 2011 thrashing was in large part caused by a widespread feeling that "dem need fi learn how fi talk to people". Leader Andrew Holness admitted as much recently, and vowed to change this. But talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words. His insulting 'three-questions-only' press conference on Monday night showed he and his party still don't get it.

Here was a national opportunity to humble himself, show he could lose graciously, and display some 'we shall return' fortitude. Instead he essentially told the media and country "I don't have time for you idiots, so hurry up and get out of my face". An apology is surely in order.

His wife should have vetoed such an approach. And if he didn't consult her, the more fool he. No sensible man makes important decisions without consulting his better half, as women are simply more emotionally intuitive and see a bigger picture. Does anyone think Michelle does not play a big role in Barack Obama's decision-making process?

pnp knows how to be nice

God only knows the source of the JLP's sense of arrogant superiority, considering it has won only one contested general election in the last 30 years. But they act like they know it all and listen to no one but themselves. No wonder Jamaica has become Comrade country. The PNP is no faultless political machine, and hardly a model of efficient governance. But it, at least, understand that you have to be nice to people if you want them to vote for you - and in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

Those of us who vote on issues don't care much which party wins, as long as no side stays in office too long, and there is a reasonable balance of power. So the current 42-to-21-seat parliament and 12-(or 13?)-to-nothing parish councils is a little troubling. Are we heading back to the 1990s when an unelectable opposition resulted in fat and lazy governance that produced abysmal economic growth and soaring crime?

Early signs are far from encouraging. The murder rate is already soaring, and all we are getting is platitudes from the same people that voted down the state of emergency extension in July 2010, and did not support a single crime bill between 2007 and 2011. The contractor general's investigations are confirming that the Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme (JEEP) remains a name in search of a coherent programme. And instead of having the Jamaica Development Infrastructure Programme, the Jamaica Public Service Contract contract and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal renegotiated in one to two weeks, as promised in the national debates, the national budget is worryingly being postponed until May. Another nine months like this and the country will be in shambles.

So we need a decent opposition. And though his brand image is nowhere near what it was six months ago, Andrew Holness remains Labour's best bet for remaking itself into a credible government in waiting, for Christopher Tufton and Bobby Montague don't have parliamentary seats, and Audley Shaw stirs no enthusiasm in the wider electorate.

Mr Holness seems to have known mostly success during his relatively young life, and appears stunned by two straight election defeats. But the response to defeat is what separates men from the boys. True leaders get back up off the canvas, clear their heads and come back fighting.

If Prince Andrew wants a case study about reinventing yourself after political humiliation, he need look no further than Queen Portia. After her 2007 local and general election defeats, Mrs Simpson Miller was widely deemed a has-been. When Peter Phillips challenged her for the People's National Party (PNP) leadership a few months later, many started writing her political obituary.

team sport

But Portia ignored her detractors, learned from her mistakes, kept going out on the road to connect with the people, and learned the value of teamwork. One big difference in the December 2011 campaigns was how the PNP talked about Portia's team, while the JLP focused almost completely on their leader. If Mr Holness does not realise soon that politics is a team sport, he may well follow the path of his mentor. Edward Seaga's 'one-man band' approach was a main factor in the JLP's four straight general election defeats in 1989, 1993, 2002 and 2007.

'Incidentally, there was not a low turnout at the recent general and local government elections. True, the percentage of registered voters casting ballots was low, but only because an unnaturally high number of persons were registered. For while the overall population only grew by one per cent between 2007 and 2011, registered voters grew by 23 per cent.

Events have shown that this was not due to a surge in those wanting to cast ballots, but in non-voters wanting the voters card as an ID. The fact is more people, and a higher percentage of the overall population, voted in 2011 and 2012 than in 2007.

Economic knife edge

But enough party politics. Jamaica is right now on an economic knife edge. Years of borrow and spend produced one of the world's highest debt to GDP ratios, and the global recession brought the chickens home to roost. The Jamaica Debt Exchange bought us time, but only postponed the reckoning. For all the PNP's election talk about hiding nothing from the people, we still have no idea about our IMF status. The unprecedented postponement of the budget till May is ringing even more alarm bells.

One recent bit of good news was the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica-led tax-reform package. It is remarkably comprehensive and well thought out, presenting a fair and relatively painless way of not only equalising the tax burden, but encouraging entrepreneurship. It would be tragic were it derailed by selfish special interests and brainless knee-jerk populism.

It is irresponsible for those who say they represent the poor to denounce reforms that lessen the overall tax burden on those who cannot afford to pay, and increase it on those who can. To obsess about GCT on basic foods, when this would be more than compensated for by other balancing measures, is illogical. You either want good for Jamaica and the less fortunate or you don't.

So here is my appeal to Portia Simpson Miller and Andrew Holness: Come to the people with a joint statement that, in the interests of the national good, you have both decided to put politics aside, and are both convinced that implementing the proposed tax reforms, wholesale, is the single best thing Jamaica can do right now to improve our economic future.

You will know deep down you have done the best for your country, set an example for all who follow, and posterity will thank you.

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