Tuesday, June 21, 2011

WikiLeaks: Perry Christie, the United States Embassy in Nassau diplomatic cables on The Bahamas and the Leadership issue

Christie, the Cables and the Leadership issue

NG Deputy News Editor

A journey through the files in the archives of The Nassau Guardian on Perry Christie confronts the investigator with the privileged life of a man who has done much, seen much and been a key part of the history of the modern Bahamas.

He was a favorite of Sir Lynden Pindling; he was a senator, member of Parliament, Cabinet minister and prime minister; he married one of the more beautiful women ever produced by these islands.

Despite all this, Christie has a problem – a big problem. Some in his party, his good friend Hubert Ingraham and a significant part of the electorate find him to be a leader who has great difficulty steering an organized and disciplined ship.

The release of the leaked diplomatic cables from the United States Embassy in Nassau by WikiLeaks revealed that diplomats from the richest and most powerful nation in the world shared the same view.

In a tight election, such criticism does not help. And that criticism was not the Americans parroting Free National Movement (FNM) propaganda. It was their view based primarily on their engagement with Christie and his government from 2002 to 2007.

For powerful politicians, being told the truth by those close to you is rare. Everybody wants something from ‘the chief’. So, they tell him what he needs to hear to keep him happy in order to get what they want.

What the Americans said about Christie is what his friend Hubert Ingraham says about him publicly and privately. What the Americans said about Christie is also what many of his supporters and party officers say about him in secret during conversations with journalists.

With such a range of people, PLPs and FNMs, thinking that the labels ‘indecisive’, ‘late’, and ‘disorganized’ truly describe Christie, he needs to pause and consider why they all have come to this view.

Many of the scandals and gaffes the PLP has endured during its last term in office, and during this term in opposition, result from the lack of fear and respect of Christie and his opting not to level hard punishment swiftly against some of those he leads.

Despite the crime problem in the country, despite the down economy, the PLP and Christie will only win the next general election if Bahamians think he has changed.

Christie, simply put, must search within himself and be stronger, more organized, more focused and more aggressive than he has been since he assumed leadership of the PLP in 1997 if he seriously wants to be PM one more time.

If the Valley Boy with the beautiful wife, the beautiful home and the beautiful life continues to think the criticisms of him are just believed by a few, that denial will allow Ingraham to steal one more contest from him, forever relegating Christie in the history books to being the one-term PM who could never come back.

When diplomats from our closest ally, after engaging with you for years at the highest levels, speak of your leadership style with ridicule and condescension, shouldn't that be a wakeup call for change?

The American view of Christie in the cables

Sitting and talking once to a PLP who knows Christie well, the question was posed to him, “Why does Christie wait so long to resolve some situations, allowing small problems to escalate into crises?”

The PLP sighed and replied, “Christie is intelligent and he is usually aware of the scope of an issue. However, he has a problem. He likes to be liked, does not like to be disliked and he too often wants to be all things to all people.”

Christie's indecisiveness, or hesitance to make quick tough decisions as the PLP described it, is not due to lack of capacity. That supporter thought the nice guy simply had an aversion to coming to conclusions that disappointed or angered others.

Throughout the diplomatic cables on The Bahamas, the Americans touch on this issue of leadership and decisiveness. That PLP member was kind in his analysis of Christie. The Americans set feelings aside in their internal correspondence.

“Christie has a well-deserved reputation as a waffling, indecisive leader, who procrastinates and often fails to act altogether while awaiting an elusive consensus in his Cabinet,” said a cable in April 2007.

The Americans acknowledged that Christie was capable. That issue was not in question.
In a February 2004 cable on Christie’s role in negotiations on Haiti the Americans said that while his decision-making style may be "protracted and indecisive" Christie was also an "impressive, dynamic, charismatic and ebullient presence."

Ingraham, Christie’s friend and former law partner, regularly pokes at this issue of decisiveness when he talks about the PLP leader publicly, and apparently privately too.

In the recent budget debate, while chiding Christie for being ‘late again’ for not delivering his party’s recommendations for amendments to the country’s election laws, Ingraham told Christie to his face that he “is not” a leader.

In a 2003 conversation with U.S. diplomats, according to a cable, Ingraham fleshed out his thoughts on Christie’s leadership style.

“He (Ingraham) said that he believes Christie is a good man and well intentioned, but criticized his leadership style,” said the cable.

“Ingraham said, ‘Perry has always been indecisive, and will always be indecisive. It's just the way he is. He can't change.’ He also alleged that Christie had no real vision other than a general desire to improve social programs, and nothing he really wanted to accomplish.”

In an interview with The Nassau Guardian earlier this month, Christie defended his legacy.

He said he was disappointed as a public official that U.S. Embassy officials seem to have taken on FNM propaganda about him.

“Anyone who sat around that table would know that I was in charge of my Cabinet, and that whether it’s foreign affairs or any other subject, that I would have been very assiduous in understanding all of the issues,” he said.

Christie has been officially in charge of the PLP, in and out of government, for about 14 years. No one has suggested that he is not in charge of the organization. What he must prove is that he can use that authority to take charge of the host of characters in his party who have a wide range of competing interests.

A divided house shall not stand

The PLP and the FNM have been closely divided since the 2007 general election. The FNM won that contest by fewer than 4,000 votes after nearly 139,000 votes were cast.

In the February 2010 Elizabeth by-election, FNM candidate Dr. Duane Sands was ahead by two votes after counting concluded. PLP candidate Ryan Pinder won the seat after the Election Court allowed five votes in his favor.

A reasonable examination of the 41 constituency seats in the country could break down the current political landscape as follows based on the current constituency boundaries: there are nine safe PLP seats; eight safe FNM seats; five seats that lean FNM; five seats that lean PLP and 14 swing seats.

It is likely that significant negative perception of Christie, as revealed by the study done by the Greenberg group for the PLP after it lost in 2007, remains a major factor behind the PLP being unable to break clearly away from the FNM and win a landslide majority during these difficult times for the country. A fourth murder record in five years will be set this year and the country is not clearly and definitively out of the recession that started after the financial crisis of 2008.

In private conversations, some PLPs feel trapped. They know this is an election they should win, but perceptions of Christie by the electorate are problematic. And because the party is set up to allow leaders 'god-like' power, Christie cannot be moved.

So these PLPs, in many instances, publicly praise Christie and savage him in private conversations. In fact, some speak worse of Christie that they do of Ingraham.

They do this because they do not believe in their leader. They merely say they do to advance their own desire to return to power under the banner of the PLP. The public senses this duplicity. It is yet another barrier to PLP success.

Christie should not read this commentary as an attack on him. He should read it as the truth those close to him may not be willing to present to him.

In the twilight of his career, Christie will be 68 in August, the PLP leader has to address this confidence issue surrounding his leadership.

Through action, and not just talk, he must demonstrate to his party and country that he can be a strong leader. He can do so by presenting a firm bold vision via his party's manifesto as to where he will lead the country if re-elected; he can do so by expelling the next PLP who embarrasses the party through gross misconduct; he can do so by not running candidates who travel around the country talking about him in private, and in semi-public venues, in derogatory terms.

In the 2007 general election, Ingraham said he was a grandfather and that he had changed from his overly aggressive, confrontational and sometimes hostile ways. He knew then, as he knows now, that Bahamians for the most part do not like those parts of his personality. Christie has his weaknesses too. For him it is critical to reform.

Being satisfied with your legacy

After being fired from Sir Lynden Pindling’s Cabinet in 1984 along with Ingraham, Christie was reappointed a minister in Sir Lynden's last government in 1990. At a rally in April that year, Christie said, “…when you support the person who will be elected, you will also be supporting his judgement.”

He was right. And the issues of leadership and judgement will be the things Bahamians evaluate when they examine Christie and Ingraham one last time (it is unlikely that Branville McCartney will make much of an impact his first time out as a leader). The PLP would like to run away from these issues, but it cannot.

For Christie the stakes are high. Going into the general election at 68, he will likely never have another chance to be PM again if he loses this race. He would then be confronted with never being able to change a legacy he thinks is incomplete.

Christie can win. He is liked by many people. But he must take on what is likely issue number one for the PLP: his leadership style.

The issue cannot be ignored or shuffled around. Bahamians want to know if the Valley Boy can be a different man.

Jun 20, 2011