A Government in Retreat (Some Thoughts on the Last One)

The Jamaican Cabinet after their swearing-in, January 2012. (Photo: Rudolph Brown/Gleaner)
The Jamaican Cabinet after their swearing-in, January 2012. (Photo: Rudolph Brown/Gleaner)

I wrote this article a couple of months ago – in January, 2013. As our Cabinet comes out of its latest two-day pre-Easter retreat, I thought that you might enjoy it, dear readers…

The great Stoic philosopher (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius commented in his wisdom, centuries ago: “Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself…But perhaps the desire of the thing called fame will torment thee. See how soon everything is forgotten, and look at the chaos of infinite time on each side of the present, and the emptiness of applause, and the changeableness and want of judgment in those who pretend to give praise, and the narrowness of the space within which it is circumscribed, and be quiet at last. For the whole earth is a point, and how small a nook in it is this thy dwelling, and how few are there in it, and what kind of people are they who will praise thee.”  (FromMeditations,” written between 170 and 180).

Well, the Jamaican Cabinet went into retreat recently – the fourth in its one-year lifespan under the leadership of Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller. This is clearly a common-sense move. When members of a team are running up and down in different directions (in this case, hopping in and out of their costly Toyota Prados, and traveling by air – first class, of course) then it is difficult to bring them all together in one place. The team needs time to reflect and then make its plans, away from the daily routine.

Therefore, on  January 10, 2013 the Cabinet went into a three-day retreat – not to a mountainside or a sea-shore, although trips to the north coast have not been out of the question in the past with Jamaican Governments. No, this retreat was in Kingston, at Jamaica House.

The Cabinet was retreating in more ways than one. It was retreating from a growing chorus of concern and criticism from the private sector and civil society. They wanted more information. Now, and rather surprisingly I feel, the Simpson Miller administration has shown that it has a serious communication problem, as the great communicator and public relations veteran Barbara Gloudon commented on radio. Why this is so, I am not sure. It is just not getting through to the people.

So. The Cabinet retreat appears to be a regular quarterly event, and nothing wrong with that. A good idea, in fact. Please note that the previous retreat was only two days long, last October. After that, the Prime Minister told Parliament on October 22: “I am making the commitment to Jamaicans at home and overseas that there will be increased communication on matters of governance.” 

Did the increased communication manifest itself in any way? I would suggest that through the end-of-year season, it did not.

So this month’s retreat became a matter of some urgency. The Cabinet needed to tell Jamaica something about the current state of the International Monetary Fund negotiations. There had been increasingly blunt, pointed comments from the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica on the remarkable dearth of information on the negotiations. And in Jamaica, when there is a vacuum it is filled with rumors, growing fear and speculation. The shrill voices on radio talk shows grew louder. Commentators on television current affairs programs, their faces gloomy in the too-bright studio lights, began discussing a “What if?” scenario. Columnists and financial analysts tackled the IMF issue from every possible angle, with precious little material to work with.

None of this is good, not for any political administration. And in many ways, it is especially sad for Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, who has always been considered a tremendous communicator and a great lover of the people – especially the poor and downtrodden of society. Her vibrant and often strident speeches – almost reminiscent of a fundamentalist preacher – have stirred thousands of Jamaicans, especially during election campaigns. Is this magnetism fading?

In fact, I would suggest that a large part of all of this revolves around the Prime Minister’s leadership. Former government minister Christopher Tufton observed in a newspaper column the other day that the Prime Minister probably needs to shake off some of her advisers, and just be herself – go out and lead, firmly. Show some mettle, don’t allow herself to get confused. Just lead!

A week before the retreat, the Prime Minister gave a televised broadcast that had largely disappointed. Unwisely wearing the “Portia” daffodil yellow of the 2011 election campaign, she had given what the media like to term a “report card” on her administration’s first year in office. She gave some details of projects in the pipeline for the next year. Fair enough. But this was not what people wanted. Just before the broadcast, “man/woman on the street” interviews (always, it seems, conducted in the same spot in Half Way Tree) showed that people expected to hear more about “the IMF, the IMF, the IMF”  – and jobs. The people were adamant. That was what they wanted.

Perhaps the government was not listening, because Ms. Simpson Miller mentioned the IMF once in passing. And Bible quotes and lyrics from a Jimmy Cliff song, however apt, just did not cut it.

Then there was the post-retreat press briefing, another brave effort to keep the public informed. But there was something wrong. The atmosphere was prickly. The phalanx of Cabinet ministers lined up to talk to the journalists looked less than refreshed from the retreat. The Prime Minister, this time in powder blue, used her warm and pleasant voice well at times. At other times, her eloquence abandoned her and a pleading tone crept in. The Finance Minister looked as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. While the Prime Minister spoke he fiddled uncomfortably with the papers in front of him. When he spoke, the Prime Minister had a slightly confused look on her face. During question time, the defensive phrase, “I didn’t say that…” crept up, more than once. The other ministers remained largely mute.

We were told that Cabinet had “signed off” on several items required by the IMF. What items, we are not sure. Words sometimes don’t mean much. But body language can tell you a lot, especially when our excellent newspaper photographers capture an expression, a gesture. The sense of discomfort at the press briefing is somehow reflected in the malaise of the people. We are, sadly, really none the wiser.

So, the retreat ended on January 13, and the anxious press briefing has come and gone.  Now, ten days later, it is business as usual. In other words, the uncertainty continues. It is as if we are all feeling our way, groping in the dark towards a glimmer of light. It’s a feeble candle that flickers in the wind. And sometimes the wind can pick up some strength, and threaten to blow the candle out.

Let me leave our Cabinet – and our Prime Minister, in particular – with some more wise words from Marcus Aurelius: “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

Stay calm. Empower yourselves. Be strong. Do the right thing for the people of Jamaica!


http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20130117/lead/lead92.html PSOJ gives Cabinet thumbs up on retreat: Gleaner

http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20121022/lead/lead4.html Cabinet Retreat: Government will communicate more, Jamaica will overcome – Portia: Gleaner

http://www.jis.gov.jm/news/leads/32728 Cabinet signs off on measures to advance IMF negotiations: Jamaica Information Service

http://www.jis.gov.jm/news/leads-117/32730 IMF is not the solution to everything: Prime Minister

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