My fellow Jamaicans…
Over the last few weeks the government has focused much of its attention on preparing the budget for the new financial year which begins in less than two weeks. It will be our first budget and, therefore, we have a duty to ensure that it reflects the priorities and policy initiatives which formed the basis of the commitments we made to the Jamaican people.
These include the compelling need to provide a framework that will encourage new investments, new jobs, new opportunities and accelerated growth. I am sure you understand how challenging this effort has been. We are caught in the middle of a global economic cyclone that is battering even countries with strong economies.
Rising oil prices and rising food prices throughout the world are just two of the more obvious signs of this growing catastrophe. It is hitting us very hard in Jamaica because all the oil we use for energy and much of the food we eat are imported. We feel it when we take gas at the pump; it hits us when we reach the supermarket checkout counter and when we get our light bill and water bill.
The prices of oil, corn and wheat have doubled since last year this time because as the price oil climbs, it pulls grain prices with it since some of the grain that used to make food is now being used to make fuel. It is a vicious cycle that has thrown the entire world economy into a tail spin.
And despite the subsidies we have put in place, the cost of living has been going up and everyone is feeling it, especially the poor, the unemployed and the low wage earners. I worry about the poor. I think of that mother who has to stretch that hard-earned dollar to make sure that her children have something to eat. I know how hard it is.
The looming recession in the United States and the massive fallout from the sub-prime mortgage crisis that has brought even a financial giant like Bear Stearns to its knees, have made the international capital markets very jittery and these pose their own set of challenges for us in constructing the budget.
Despite these challenges, we have completed the budget and it will be tabled in Parliament next week Thursday.
The budget team, led by Ministers Audley Shaw and Don Wehby, along with their technical experts, has done a tremendous job in crafting a budget that is credible and one that, I am confident, will enable us to meet the challenges that face us.
We have built into the budget a firm determination to reduce the deficit. Persistent fiscal deficits fuel inflation, erode confidence and drive up interest rates. We have been persisting with fiscal deficits for many years. We have to turn it around – not overnight – but over time and we have to begin now!
And, within these tight fiscal constraints, we have had to protect those priorities that are critical to moving us forward, providing a helping hand for those most in need, opportunities for those determined to get ahead and space for us to grow.
At the same time, we have been in intense negotiations with our trade union partners toward a new Memorandum of Understanding, recognizing that public sector workers have to get a wage increase but recognizing, also, that these are tough times and the Jamaican economy, fragile as it is, has to be steered through this turbulent period.
Minister Dwight Nelson has been at the helm of these discussions and I commend him and the trade union leadership for the constructive way in which these negotiations have been proceeding.There are burdens we will have to continue to bear but the budget will seek to strengthen our capacity to bear those burdens. But let it be clear that those burdens will have to be borne by all of us – not just some. This is a time when all shoulders must be under the load, all hands on deck!
As we muscle up to tackle the difficulties facing us this year and the uncertainties to which we are so nakedly exposed, we must begin to address, in a serious way, our deficiencies and vulnerabilities.We import too much and export too little! We produce too little and borrow too much…to pay for what we don’t produce. We have been like this for too long.
We must start to make things happen instead of allowing things to happen to us. We have ignored for too long the need for energy security and food security and, because of this, we have ended up like the ‘yo-yo’ at the end of somebody else’s string. We have to get real and we will have to make real changes, using precious energy more efficiently and growing food more productively…so that our farmers can support us and we support them.
We must shed burdens that we shouldn’t have to bear, burdens that the taxpayers can no longer afford to bear, and we must eliminate waste and root out corruption, so that our resources can be spent where they can be more productive..to produce something where nothing was produced before, to create a job where none existed before.
We take no comfort in the fact that countries the world over are wrestling with similar problems. They have their challenges. We have ours. And we must rise to these challenges with courage and resourcefulness and, most of all, with confidence in ourselves that we can be as good as the best and better than the rest.We have no time to curse the darkness. We must shine a light and we must follow the light.
This year, we must make major strides in resolving the issue of how we govern ourselves and how we are prepared to allow ourselves to be governed. We must build a platform on which we can work together because, especially in times like these, we can achieve so much more if we pull together rather than pull apart.
As I indicated, next week Thursday we will table the estimates setting out the expenditure programme for the next financial year. On April 10th, Finance Minister Audley Shaw will outline how the budget is to be financed, the macro-economic strategy we will be executing and the policy initiatives that we will pursue and which the budget is geared to support.
It is a budget that is designed to reinforce hope based on a firm understanding of where we are, a clear vision as to where we want to go and a roadmap as to how to get there.
Even in these tough times – indeed, especially because of these tough times – we must make a fresh start to develop the capacity of our people to produce the means of our own subsistence, to work hard and to enjoy the fruits of our labour.
And so, my fellow Jamaicans, let’s get to work, for there is much work to be done. And we know the sun will never set on Jamaica for we are a mighty people and we can accomplish what we will.
My fellow Jamaicans…