Portia in the Balance 2016: Opinion Piece by Joan French

I am a little late sharing this, but for those of you who have not yet read it – it’s a provocative read. Now, since the article was written immediately after the elections, the reference to the results in the first paragraph is now dated, as the seat count remained at 32 – 31. However, this is not simply a response to the election results, but a challenging piece on leadership: in particular women’s political leadership, and in particular that of the now Opposition Leader Portia Simpson Miller. The article was first published in the Stabroek News of Guyana, and subsequently in the Jamaica Observer. 

The author of this article, Joan French, has long been involved in activism for women’s socio-cultural and political progress. She was a Board member of the Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre, a founding member of the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action, Coordinator of the Caribbean Policy Development Centre; 1991-1995, and was involved in discussions leading to the establishment of the Institute of Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies. She has also served as the UNICEF Regional Advisor for Women in the Americas and Caribbean Regional Office, Chief of Gender at UNICEF Headquarters in New York, and UNICEF’s country representative to Burkina Faso, West Africa.

Joan French. (Photo: University of the West Indies)
Joan French. (Photo: University of the West Indies)

March 7, 2016

Portia in the Balance 2016

The Jamaican elections 2016 are now over. The People’s National Party (PNP) is stunned. The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) has moved quickly to come to terms with its unexpected victory. The present count is JLP 32, PNP 31. Two magisterial recounts requested by the JLP could only increase their margin if the results change.

The sons and daughters who benefitted from the expansion of secondary and university education to all classes under the PNP governments of Norman Manley and Michael Manley cannot identify anything similar in their generation that would cause them to be wedded to that history, which most of them do not know or do not care about. They have used their expanded opportunities to react to the disrespect shown to their enhanced educational levels by the refusal of the Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller, to engage in a debate on the issues, and other displays of arrogance by the PNP in the lead-up to the elections. According to media reports most have voted JLP or abstained. The PNP focus on the Opposition Leader’s big house got no traction: in the Jamaica of today who does not want one too?

Most significantly, however, the JLP filled the vacuum created by the lack of attention to the deepening economic distress caused by adherence to an economic austerity program that saw the PNP passing eleven consecutive International Monetary Fund (IMF) tests. Chanting “Prosperity,” the JLP sailed into power with a promise of tax relief for all persons earning less than J$1.5 million and a doubling of the minimum wage, stating that what was most relevant was passing “the people’s test.”

In the meantime Portia Lucretia Simpson Miller, Jamaica’s first female Prime Minister, remains loyal to a party whose internal dynamics she has been unable to influence from her position of gender and class isolation, carefully protected from public view. She has chosen to make the necessary compromises with male and class power in order to hold the party together and keep her titles as party leader and Prime Minister. She is constrained by male power and class within, and she is battered from without for not living up to the expectations of the educated elite – including the new elite who got there via the educational opportunities to which they have had access because of the PNP. Despite my distress at the situation, my sympathy goes out to Portia for all the indignities she has suffered in attempting what no other woman in the country has yet attempted. However the PNP has gone astray, and Portia with it.

The irony of the situation is that Portia has been left holding the blame for the party’s defeat, while the Minister of Finance who has carved and guided the economic directions that made the electorate vulnerable to wooing by a promise of more money in their pockets, is still regarded on all sides, PNP and JLP, as having performed well. This is despite the disastrous consequences of few or very temporary and marginal jobs, the extreme distress of low-income and no-income parents trying to provide food, uniforms, and books to send children to school, the unacceptable levels of absenteeism as the situation deteriorates and prices rise from devaluation and the “free market” to which price control is anathema, and the complete counter-productivity of all this to the ostensible priority to education. There has been scant attention to social security to ensure that the capacity to support that effort is maintained for the population groups challenged by poverty. Peter Phillips is also the one who seemed to most make an issue out of the “big house” being built by the then Leader of the Opposition, now Prime Minister, Andrew Holness. This point so highlighted by the Minister of Finance gained the PNP no points, and was generally regarded as an irrelevant distraction – but no-one seems to remember that – they are too busy bashing Portia.

Where women’s rights are concerned, the PNP Manifesto and campaign were silent, despite the fact that this portfolio falls under the Office of the Prime Minister, and that efforts had in fact been made: long-awaited legislation on sexual harassment at the workplace had in fact been tabled in Parliament, although the process was not completed. The JLP did better in their Manifesto, committing on paper to the National Policy for Gender Equality, legislation against sexual harassment and all the legislation pending under the PNP including the ratification of the Decent Work Convention – although the inclusion took some hard internal work, and deep commitment is in question. The point, however, is that it can be used to hold them accountable.

The JLP ended up with seven women in Parliament [House of Representatives], the PNP with four.

In the final analysis, no-one wishing to be relevant in the exercise of political power in this historical period can afford to ignore the fact that IMF “solutions” for economies like ours exacerbate poverty and distress in our local populations while pricing more and more goods and services out of reach. Neither can the generation to which Portia belongs ignore the evolution of youth consciousness in response to both the opportunities and challenges of their lived experience. They engage with issues everyday through the tools of the technologically-advanced and communication-conscious world in which they move and have their being. Portia’s refusal to engage in a national debate on the issues left them cold, rejected, angry at being ignored, detached.

Whatever the outcome of the present political moment, Portia Simpson Miller deserves a balanced assessment. In spite of all the challenges – and they have been greater than those faced by any previous Prime Minister – she has remained steadfast in speaking out in the areas in which her confidence has not been undermined by gender and class factors. She has consistently spoken out against violence and abuse of children, ensuring the establishment and continuation, despite the economic pressures, of agencies such as the Centre for the Investigation of Sexual Offences and Child Abuse (CISOCA), the Child Development Agency (CDA), the PATH program which provides school lunches and free health care for children, the community mental health program, as well as the services provided by the National Insurance Scheme. Her steadfast support for the National Health Fund, instituted by the PNP, has placed critical medication within the reach of those who need them, regardless of income. She has consistently, even if quietly, taken action when poor governance has been brought to her attention, as happened with the Orange Grove/Outameni issue, which involved the multi-million dollar purchase by the National Housing Trust of lands where the Outameni tourist attraction, owned by a local businessman, was situated. She has actively promoted access to housing and land titles for ordinary Jamaicans. There are other examples – not sufficiently apparent in the campaign communications of the PNP.

Portia has NOT asserted with sufficient vigor that defense of the poor for which she was once known. The class-biased and IMF-favored environment and dynamics of the PNP as it exists today are not favorable. This PNP is NOT the PNP of Michael Manley and Beverley Manley. Democratic socialism has disappeared from the agenda. The PNP seems to be more committed than the IMF to the neo-liberal agenda, over-performing on IMF targets.

Portia has shied away from association with the sexual rights agenda, bowing to pressure from within the party.

Portia has allowed herself to be convinced by those who promoted the message that balancing people’s lives could wait until the macro-economy was fixed: The Minister of Finance again. The price of wanting to be first world in IMF terms without paying attention to the terrible impact on the poor and poorly paid has been the affection and support of the people – at least this time around. Portia has not understood or appreciated the qualitative change in the consciousness and modes of engagement of youth. However Portia has been known to “wheel and come again.”

Portia’s failure to assert her own brand of leadership because of her position of isolation as a woman, and one of humble origins, within a party hierarchy and a government comprised primarily of educated males of the middle classes, shows clearly the constraining impact of male dominance. Parity in female representation in our political parties, parliaments and governments would provide better chances for females to exercise more autonomous leadership. Parity would help create a more positive environment for women like Portia Simpson Miller to exert confident leadership rather than becoming hostage to the lack of confidence in her by the educated elite, mainly male and patriarchal. To be sure all women will not agree on everything, and some women are also patriarchal – but creating a critical, capable and committed mass of women in parties and governments can provide a more secure and enabling base for the successful exercise of female power at the top, as well as the orientation of men of goodwill towards recognizing and respecting the rights of women.

As we evaluate the performance of our female Prime Ministers, there is a need to evaluate the constraints they face from male-dominant power structures and influence within their parties, the level of consciousness they have about it, and the strategies they put in place to counter it – if they are committed to transforming it. It is not impossible to make significant advances in this regard. Michelle Bachelet as President of Chile put in place a government with 50% carefully chosen, competent and qualified female Ministers properly oriented to their tasks within a clear political direction – and left office as one of the most popular and appreciated Presidents in the history of the country.

7 thoughts on “Portia in the Balance 2016: Opinion Piece by Joan French

  1. Very perceptive, and beautifully written. I never stopped to think what obstacles Portia might have faced in that male-centric environment inside Gordon House, or indeed what any woman in a position of leadership might face because of her gender, anywhere in the world. Coupled with the unending horror show that is IMF-lead austerity in the country…hopefully she is taking a little time out for herself….


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