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NEW YEAR'S MESSAGE - Build the Jamaica you want to see

Published:Thursday | January 1, 2015 | 1:00 AM
Opposition Leader Andrew Holness

OPPOSITION LEADER - Andrew Holness

We welcome the New Year with all the hopes and possibilities it holds, and we give thanks that we have been spared to see 2015.

As we, the people of Jamaica, make our personal resolutions to live healthier lifestyles, to be more prudent with our resources, and to improve ourselves and grow our business, so, too, must the Government of the country make resolutions and decisive actions on critical areas of national development.

Health

This year, the Government must focus on better management of our public health system. We cannot allow the mismanagement of the chikungunya epidemic to characterise the standard of our public-health response to future epidemic threats. Ebola is still a global concern and we must continue to be vigilant and prepared.

The state of health-service delivery in our hospitals and clinics is a grave cause for concern. Long waiting times and cases of patients dying, lack of medicines, and stressed-out staff are now common features of the general condition of public health care in Jamaica.

Regardless of our economic challenges, the health of Jamaicans must be a priority. … We believe it is now time to establish a National Health Insurance Scheme, where all Jamaicans can make an affordable contribution to a pool of funds dedicated to health services.

Education

We are very happy to see the continued improvements in examination results. This is no doubt the result of significant policy work done several years ago to transform the education system. Our focus on literacy and the implementation of the competence-based transition policy, along with several significant initiatives, has brought meaningful change to the sector. However, there are areas of concern that must be addressed.

Many parents are now being confronted with tough decisions about school fees or auxiliary fees and whether to send their children to school. While results are improving because of the work done during my administration, we fear that attendance at school will be affected by the enforcement of fees during increasingly difficult economic times. …

We, therefore, strongly encourage the Government to reinstate the tuition-free policy and to increase the allocation per student to schools in the 2015-2016 Budget.

Energy

I am sure that we are all happy to see the price of oil fall. However, we must always bear in mind that the fall in oil prices is temporary, and not necessarily driven by pure market forces. The Government, therefore, must not let this temporary reprieve dull the urgent need for real energy reform in Jamaica. A significant number of our electricity-generating plants are old and inefficient. These plants must be taken out of service and replaced with more modern and efficient generating capacity.

This year, the Government must take serious action towards attracting serious investment in the electricity-generation sector. In the interim, Jamaican consumers must benefit from the significant drop in oil prices. It is disingenuous for the Government to call on the retailers of oil products to offer lower prices to the public when the Government itself ultimately controls the price at which the market is supplied. This year, the Government must review the pricing mechanism of Petrojam.

Economy

The Jamaican people have kept faith and borne the heavy burden of the Government's austerity measures. Since this administration has taken office, fees and taxes have increased, wages have been frozen and social services have declined. The Government continues to rely on passing austerity tests as a sign of its progress, but austerity is not a long- term solution - constantly increasing taxes, cutting consumer spending power and cutting investment in public infrastructure will not grow the country.

The Government also continues to promote the idea that growth will come from large foreign investments in logistics and infrastructure. The lessons we have learned are that this is not necessarily so. While it is important to focus on the macro level, growth really comes from focusing on the micro level. Sometimes, it's not even about the financial resources to make the investment. Oftentimes, it is about Government moving faster on decisions, bringing investors together with ideas, and creating the right regulatory framework in which entrepreneurs can take risks.

This year, the Government must focus on small businesses and local entrepreneurs and the things they need to be able to increase production and investment. Things like keeping the incentives of the Junior Stock Exchange, reducing transaction taxes, and improving the time it takes for approvals.

Good Governance

While the people have been keeping faith with the Government's programme of belt tightening, the Government has not been tightening its own belt and keeping faith with the people. Last year, we saw several instances of waste and misuse of public funds, from million-dollar phone bills to inappropriate use of your National Housing Trust (NHT) funds to purchase a failing private business. O

ne of the most hurtful ironies of this saga is that while it was coming to light that the NHT had bought the Outameni tourist attraction for $180 million and was continuing to spend millions of dollars on its maintenance, the prime minister was also informing the public that the NHT would be cutting assistance to low-income earners by approximately $80 million. We, as citizens, may not always connect the dots, but bad governance has real effects on our welfare. The fact is that fewer people who could normally have benefited from their NHT contributions will benefit because the NHT board decided to spend less on what it is supposed to do - build houses - and more on what it is not supposed to do - buy tourist attractions.

Each and every Jamaican has a duty to hold the Government to account for the proper running of the country's affairs. In a democracy, power flows from the people, and if the people decide not to participate, then governments can act in ways that are not in the people's interest, without fear of consequence. I encourage all Jamaicans to let your voice be heard, whether you are articulate or inarticulate. You have the power to change how the country is run.

Foreign Policy

Significant changes are on the horizon for the Caribbean region. We welcome signs of the normalisation of relations between the United States and Cuba. As I have consistently said, Jamaica should re-examine its foreign policy with a view to focusing on the northern Caribbean. Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. All have markets that are at least three times the size of our population. It is true that while they are geographically close to us all, the infrastructure for trade and investments may not currently exist. A part of our growth strategy must be how we position ourselves to participate in external markets … .

What Kind of Country Do We Want?

There are many issues that require decision. We can make this the year when we decide the kind of Jamaica we want. The Government has brought to the Parliament a bill to remove the Privy Council as our final court of appeal. We maintain the view that any such move must have the approval of the people in a referendum. We take note that our other partners, including Trinidad where the Caribbean Court of Justice is presently headquartered, have seen the wisdom in having the people endorse their final court.

Last year, human-rights issues figured significantly in the news. Too often, the context of human rights is a fight between the state and its citizens. And sometimes it appears that there is a reluctance on the part of the State to secure the rights of its citizens. The West Kingston Enquiry offers an opportunity for the State to take a proactive approach in setting the tone by which we deal with the rights of the citizens, particularly how the State protects the right to life and how persons are compensated when they have been hurt by the State.

This year, let us think carefully about the type of Jamaica we want to see. I believe we can all agree that we want to see a healthy, educated, energy-efficient, economically growing Jamaica, where people have a sense that they can get justice and their rights will be protected … .