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Last night’s third national debate had much more bite and cut and thrust. This was a heavyweight bout and fireworks were flying. This wasn’t the hurling of brickbats we see in Parliament, but it also wasn’t the genteel fireside chat of the previous debate on economy and finance. Each man had his prey in sight and went for the kill shot early and often. That’s how we got to meet “Mas’ Tom” to help him with stories to lambast Dr. Phillips, whom he quickly dubbed “Pappa Tax”. Some may not like that, but it’s at least gives a sense that blood runs through their veins.

We saw a PM standing firmly on his government’s record of achievement. Getting things done was the mantra, whatever choice of words or actions described.

We saw an Opposition leader who had energy and clarity and qualities of a potential national government leader. His focus tended to be on betterment of people and opportunities for them to achieve that.

Questions were mostly well-pointed, especially those from Dionne Jackson-Miller, who was the real winner, for probing and persistence. But, that’s her norm.

George Davis punched well, too, but didn’t connect as well as DJM. She came with zinger upper cuts on matters to do with the PM’s apparent repeated disregard for the Constitution:

I, personally, put much store in the array of numbers trotted out in these kinds of debates, because I know that the ‘truth’ being delivered is whatever version of ‘facts’ the speaker wants. We may sometimes be asked to compare apples and pears, but without the option to clarify which. But, I notice where people stumble over numbers. So, the fuzzy maths about housing starts doesn’t really move me. But, I find odd that Dr. Phillips stumbled over the number of years of Jamaica’s independence “52…58”, not least because he has lived them all. 🤔 What did the PM mean when talking about “flattening the murder rate”? Too many COVID-19 updates, I fear. Who wants murders ‘flattening’ around 1000 a year?

I’m also not too bothered by what is really hype; image is part and parcel of the whole political game. So, we had the PM strutting onto the stage sporting his now iconic green Clarks shoes. If we didn’t see them during the walk-on, we got them at the end with the ‘elbow bump’ farewell (see below). But, not everyone likes the shoes.

I was bothered by the PM’s rambling answer to the question of how he’s dealt with corruption or misgovernance within his administration, for which I think he should get little credit for what has been at best ambivalence and at worst tolerance of corruption—and perception is key in that waving hands to show they are clean doesn’t cut it for most people when they see what ‘dirt’ has been blowing around. We have court cases pending, so the legal system may not come down definitively on the matter of crimes committed, but the stench that’s been lingering hasn’t been sweet.

The PM was duly criticized for the way he has accumulated power into his own hands (minister of 6 portfolios), and in the Office of the Prime Minister—“the Ministry of everything“. That allowed Dr. Phillips to contrast himself as being more about ’Team’. (In truth, that may be a way of making sure he doesn’t go down alone with the ship ‘Orange Manifesto’).

Again, time management reared its head, and both leaders struggled mightily to get their words out in the allotted time. In my opinion, the PM was guilty of this to an egregious extent bordering on rudeness in pushing through to the end of his desired words, despite calls to stop by the moderator. That’s disrespectful on several levels, but it’s also telling about how ‘power’ is seen by some.

The PM stressed leadership, strength, and stamina—a set of metaphors for youthfulness—and who can get things done.

Many people ‘scored’ the debate at worst a tie and a best a clear win for Dr. Phillips.

More elaborate polling is also underway:

Although, I thought the discussion panel for the economy/finance debate was weak in not committing themselves to identifying a winner, I wasn’t taken by the elaborate scoring method that was employed last night, which seemed like a means to force decisions.

On final optics, both remembered to urged voters to cast their ballots, appropriately. They were also each given a chance to send a message about voting safely in COVID-risky times.

The debate was a warning about polls. Dr. Phillips has been trailing badly in favourability ratings for months, by some 40 percentage points.

However, on his performance last night, whatever his ‘favourability’, he was at least a match for the PM. That may spur some to give PNP candidates a boost, feeling that the leader isn’t such a loser, after all. However, his performance may do little to change the other poll view that PNP has performed poorly and is disunited.

Image courtesy of 1SpotMedia

My takeaway from the debates, especially this last one, is what economics tells us is important: what shifts sentiments. Jamaica’s electorate is fickle and has shown it’s ready to dump an administration that has done many good things for the population, but can get overtaken by the lure of a juicy present (in 2016, ‘1.5’ [J$1.5 million tax threshold] did the trick). (People may now have views about how good was the cut in income tax being offset by increases in GCT and other indirect taxes.) This time around, I don’t thing the bag of goodies offered by PNP will do it, but a funny conundrum about what the current administration represents in all its pushing to archive may create its downfall. It’s often not really taken people along with it. Those with better memories will look at the road programs and how pretty the ‘cyaapet’ is but not forget the months of mayhem it inflicted on many of us, and how many loud concerns went unheeded. Last week’s heavy rains also showed that the quality of some of this work is shoddy. The management of the pandemic may be such an event, where the sense of calling elections when the spike is clear will strike some as another rung on the ladder of disregard for popular concerns. That’s separate from addressing what would have been a better time. So, I’m positioned to see a closer election than many predict. I have no money or reputation on the line, but want to see if those rumblings in my gut are meaningful.