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This is the fourteenth successive year in which I have enjoyed the privilege of delivering a New Year’s Message to the people of Jamaica as Prime Minister of our beloved country. This will be my last such occasion. The start of a New Year is always a time to review what we have achieved individually and nationally, as we look ahead to the new opportunities that a New Year presents.
In 2005 we experienced our fair share of challenges. Yet we can take pride in some notable achievements that will serve to improve the standard of living of our people.
Throughout the year, we were able to maintain economic stability because of our healthy foreign exchange reserves position. As a result of our sound fiscal policies, we earned the confidence of the local and international financial community. Jamaica is now enjoying the largest levels of investment since the nineteen fifties.
We have started a number of development projects, which, when completed, will provide enormous long-term social and economic benefits. CRIME
Without a doubt, the high level of violent crime remains our most troubling and pressing problem. During the year, we saw a most distressing increase in violence against our innocent young children as well as our women and the elderly. Every form of violence is abhorrent but the callousness of the crimes committed on our innocent and defenceless children marks a new low point in our national life.
We mourn their loss with great sorrow and reach out in sympathy and prayer for their parents, families and friends. This new level of evil has hardened even further our Administration’s resolve to vanquish the wicked criminals who show no mercy whatsoever.
We instituted a number of new crime fighting measures several of which are already beginning to show encouraging results. We have witnessed the apprehension of some of the most notorious gang leaders and others who make their living from murder and extortion.
I thank those citizens and members of various organisations who have cooperated fully with our security forces. Fighting crime is a national problem. It cannot be a source for making partisan points on the basis of economic status, social class or political affiliation. We must all be at one in order to succeed.
Our security strategy includes a significant increase in the number of police officers, better trained and better equipped. The acquisition of state-of-the-art technological equipment will facilitate better follow up of intelligence and improved crime scene investigation techniques. Of equal importance is the immediate implementation of projects for increased economic opportunities within targeted communities to tackle those social problems which contribute to the recruitment of our young people into a life of crime.
I strongly urge every citizen who has valuable information to come forward and play his or her part in a struggle that requires the total commitment of every single Jamaican. Let us give strong guidance and support to the young people and protect them from those who would lead them astray.
THE ECONOMY
Weather-related disruptions, arising from the most active hurricane season on record affected activity in every sector. It reduced the flow of revenues, while to repair the damage we had to increase our budgetary expenditure.
Despite these setbacks, we have made every effort to control the Budget, as this is essential if we are to reduce interest rates and ease our debt burden.Record breaking oil prices as well as weather-related damage to our local food crops pushed up the cost of living. I want to congratulate the unions and workers, especially those in the public sector, for their discipline and maturity, and the restraint shown in the face of the economic strains. With their cooperation, the Memorandum of Understanding held up for the entire year. In the coming year we must be fair to our workers, while ensuring that we remain fiscally responsible.
While agriculture was hurt by the bad weather and our farmers suffered losses for the second year in a row, other sectors continued to perform well. In the bauxite sector, growth in output continued and alumina production reached another record. The early work on the JAMALCO expansion got underway. Foreign exchange that flows from both the production and the investment in this expansion will boost our earnings and our capacity to pay our way.
In tourism, visitor arrivals, both stop-over and cruise passengers, increased, despite the disruption caused by hurricanes in the July to October period. Indeed, stop-over arrivals increased by 24.5% in November. We anticipate a 20% increase in December, leading to growth of over 4% for the year. Thus, we achieved another record year for stop-over visitor arrivals, making it the third successive year of record performance. Much credit is due to all the stakeholders in the industry, but particularly the workers.
We can expect an even more robust performance in the New Year. Over 1,000 new hotel rooms were added last year and several hotel projects, now under construction, will be completed in the latter part of the year and over the next five years. Together with the massive investments in infrastructure, the expansion in tourism, which spans from Westmoreland all along the northern coastline to Portland – will generate strong economic growth and higher levels of employment, especially among young people, over the next few years.
Because of the extensive linkages of the tourist industry to agriculture, manufacturing, entertainment, personal services, transportation, among others, the massive expansion of the industry will generate momentum right across the economy. Once again, I urge our young people to register for training at HEART and private sector institutions to qualify themselves for direct employment. Get trained for self-employment as private contractors to provide the wide range of services and skills needed as a result of economic expansion.
Infrastructure improvements continue at a rapid pace including several major water and irrigation projects as well as the upgrading of the island-wide road system.
Work has begun on Segment III of the Northcoast Highway bringing new employment and economic opportunities for the residents of the surrounding areas. Early in the New Year, we will be breaking ground for the US$120 million expansion of the Rockfort Carib Cement factory that will double its capacity.
The slew of investment projects underway will spur economic growth, create jobs and fuel business confidence.
ADVANCES
We must ensure that, in addition to seizing the opportunities made available through investment projects, we also take advantage of the many advances we have made in other areas. These include:
the National Health Fund and the Jamaica Drugs for the Elderly Programme (JADEP) which make health care more affordable;
improvements in our education system which now allow unprecedented access to the largest number of Jamaicans in our history. We will continue to address the issue of quality through the Transformation process on which we are now fully embarked;
increased training programmes through HEART to create the trained work force needed for some 30,000 jobs for direct employment being created through the expansion in bauxite, tourism, our airports and seaports, and other construction projects including our first class highways, our road network and our transportation system. Each job created also generates economic activity for between two and three additional persons who provide services in support of these new jobs.
The Administration is also now providing:
increases in pension payments and in benefits under the National Insurance programme;
increased allocations for the Jamaica Social Investment Fund providing improved basic social services in our inner cities;
significant benefits will flow from the PetroCaribe Agreement;
the freeing from payment of income tax for some 66,700 Jamaicans because of the raising of the tax threshold as of last July and the further increase in the threshold as of the first day of January, 2006, when persons earning $193,440 or less will no longer pay any income tax;
THE FUTURE
While we continue the task of national development, there is much that we can be proud of as a nation. Our commitment to regionalism continues to hold out much hope for increased economic opportunities and employment at home and throughout the Caribbean through the CSME.
Our status in the international community, through our bilateral and multilateral relations continues to be outstanding. We are about to complete a very successful year as Chair of the G77 and China.
Jamaican residents overseas continue to play a positive role in national life with their unwavering interest in our nation’s development. Many continue to distinguish themselves in a number of areas in their adopted homelands – in the professions, in the arts, in academia, and as international civil servants. During June, we will host the 2nd Conference of the Jamaican Diaspora in Kingston.
Jamaican music remains a predominant force in international popular culture. Our athletes enjoy considerable prestige and command great respect wherever they perform. All of this contributes to the strength of the Jamaica brand, which plays an important role in the positive image of the Jamaican people as creative and self-confident. This reinforces international awareness of our island as a producer of quality, world-class products and as a visitor destination that offers outstanding natural beauty as well as a vibrant, unique cultural experience.
As I finish the last lap of my tenure as Prime Minister, I do so full of confidence in the people of Jamaica to confront the challenges ahead with the good sense they have displayed throughout my more than forty years in public life. There were many tough issues and hard choices to be made during my tenure.
Today, as I contemplate the future of our country, I do so satisfied that I have been guided by Christian beliefs; in the timeless Jamaican tradition and values of decency, self respect and respect for others whatever their gender, race, religion, nationality, economic or social standing. These policies, strategies and programmes have had one single objective – improving the quality of life of every Jamaican with special focus on the poor, the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, providing opportunities for the spiritual, social and economic upliftment of every Jamaican.
Righting the wrongs of our history is a gargantuan task but one which I have attempted in my own humble way.
At the start of this New Year with all its promise, let us resolve to make this island one in which each of us can achieve our full potential as individuals. Let us resolve to make Jamaica, this beloved country, the best that there can be.
When the rest of the world think of Jamaica, let them see a land in which all our people live together in peace and harmony, with respect for each other, with tolerance, with the ability to resolve differences with civility.
As we look around us, let us identify the issues that unite us as human beings. Let us carefully consider the effect of our every action on our families, our communities and our country.
We have achieved much in the past year, but further conquests still lie ahead. We must learn that there are no instant solutions but that with hard work, and with trust in the Almighty there is nothing we cannot accomplish.
As I enter the home stretch, let us begin the New Year confident in our ability to build a country that we will be proud to leave behind for generations to come.
May God continue to guide and bless us all and bless Jamaica, this beautiful land we dearly love.