My fellow Jamaicans…
2010 was a year of mixed fortunes. It was, in some respects, a tumultuous year, most notably with the events surrounding the extradition of Christopher Coke.
In the first half of the year, we experienced the worst drought in more than 30 years and then, in a complete reversal, we had more rains in the latter part of the year than we have had for 30 years. The economy continued to feel the effects of the global recession with weak demand for our exports, reduced levels of investment and, although recovering, remittances are still not back to where they were before the recession.
Even though the rate of decline in the economy has slowed, it has taken a heavy toll on us – many persons are out of work, more families have fallen below the poverty line, spending power has been weak and many find it hard to make ends meet. Recovery from the global recession is proving to be slow, resulting in hesitancy on the part of investors to expand or start new businesses and thereby restore the jobs that were lost. Despite the harsh economic environment, however, we recorded growth in tourism and agriculture.
This past year, we put in place a number of strategic measures to form the basis for future investment and growth. The Jamaica Debt Exchange, a critical element in the Medium-Term Economic Programme, supported by tight fiscal management has resulted in interest rates falling to their lowest level in more than 30 years.
We have been able to source much cheaper loans and while the size of the public debt will not come down for a few years, the burden of that debt on taxpayers has been reduced. The steps we have taken to institutionalize fiscal responsibility and accountability, will ensure that we don't return to the ways of the past but build confidence for the future.
The immediate challenge we faced in responding to the global crisis was to stabilize the economy and create the macro-economic conditions for growth. It required tough and even painful measures but we knew that if we failed to act the pain would eventually be much worse. That task is well advanced.
Interest rates have been coming down, inflation is coming down, debt service costs have come down, the exchange rate is stable, the net international reserves are robust, government spending is being kept tight and loss-making enterprises are being divested.
Our focus must now be on stimulating growth and creating jobs through investment and expansion. This, of course, must be driven by the private sector but the government has an important enabling role to play. The strategies to support this focus on growth are being developed through the PIOJ which has engaged the services of Professor Donald Harris, noted Jamaican economist and Stanford University Professor Emeritus.
This effort will benefit from the consultative machinery of the Partnership for Transformation which brings together the leadership of the private sector, trade unions and government. It will inform the policies on which the new budget will be constructed and presented in April.
Major public sector investment projects such as the JDIP road improvement programme and large housing construction projects, both facilitated through the government of China, started toward the end of last year and much greater impact will be seen this year.
We have virtually completed the privatization of the sugar industry and the new operators will assume management of Frome, Monymusk and Bernard Lodge in July with a commitment for US$127 million in new investment to modernize and expand sugar production.
Similarly, we have divested Air Jamaica which was costing us close to $1 billion per month to maintain.
We have entered into a new agreement to divest our assets in Jamalco. The agreement negotiated includes the cancellation of the forward-sale contracts which have cost taxpayers more than J$12 billion since they were entered into in 2002 and which were projected to cost us another J$15 billion before the contracts come to an end in 2013.
Last year, we saw the reopening of the Ewarton alumina plant. We are currently in discussions with the owners regarding the possible reopening of the other two plants – Kirkvine and Alpart – that were also closed because of the fallout in the global alumina market.
The efforts toward switching much of our energy needs from oil to natural gas is proceeding and long-term contractual arrangements, investment commitments and an appropriate regulatory and pricing framework should be firmly in place early in 2011.
Construction of the new Port of Falmouth is virtually complete and it will receive its first cruise ship next Friday. Next week, we will officially declare open the new Montego Bay Convention Centre which will enable us to enter the huge market for convention business.
The redevelopment of downtown Kingston is being kick-started with the construction of Digicel's global headquarters and the opening of the Kingston Transport Centre scheduled for the middle of January.
On the issue of governance, last year saw the establishment of the Independent Commission of Investigation (INDECOM) to ensure public confidence in the investigation of alleged abuse by members of the security forces. A number of other key commitments such as prime ministerial term limits, impeachment provisions, a special prosecutor to deal with corruption, whistleblower protection, tighter procedures for the award of government contracts, legal sanctions for breaches of the Code of Political Conduct and the regulation of political party financing, are either before Parliament for approval or will shortly be submitted to Parliament.
The Charter of Rights on which deliberations have gone on for more than 17 years will shortly become a reality as the final vote to insert it in the Constitution will be taken in Parliament at the end of March.
The crime-fighting initiatives introduced in May have yielded good results. The murder rate for the second half of the year fell by 30% when compared to the first half. Our security forces must be commended for their hard work. We have also seen a much greater level of cooperation from the public in providing information to the Police and in their willingness to testify. This cooperation is vital if we are to ensure that violent criminals are taken off the streets and kept off the streets.
Despite the improvement we have seen, the level of crime is still too high and reducing it further remains a top priority for the new year. We expect to enact this year tough anti-gang legislation for which Cabinet has already issued drafting instructions. The majority of violent crimes are linked to the activities of organized criminal gangs for which special targeted measures are required. Just as countries throughout the world found it necessary after 9/11 to institute special measures to deal with international terrorists, we too need special measures to deal with organized criminal gangs whose viciousness is just as costly in human lives.
We made a concerted effort last year through the National Road Safety Council to keep the number of persons killed in road accidents to under 300. Although we didn't quite make it, it was still the lowest number of fatalities we have seen in over 10 years. We must improve on that this year and changes to the Road Traffic Act which will shortly be submitted to Cabinet, will strengthen our efforts to ensure more careful use of our roads.
This year our athletes who have brought us so much glory internationally will begin their preparations for the 2012 Olympics in London, England. We must support them. We will shortly be installing new synthetic surfaces at both the National Stadium and the Stadium East to meet our scheduled athletic events for this year as well as to facilitate our athletes in their preparation for next year's Olympics.
This year, as well, preparations will move into high gear for the commemoration of our 50 years of independence in 2012. It is going to be a grand event and a grand homecoming with thousands of overseas Jamaicans coming home for the celebrations.
We begin the New Year with renewed hope. Yes, we have been through some tough times. We have had to endure the worst global economic crisis in 80 years but the worst has passed and we have used the time to put in place measures that will position us not just for recovery but for sustained improvement over the medium and long term.
Let us, together, face the challenges of the New Year with confidence and determination and let us grasp every opportunity that it offers to make Jamaica a better place to live, work, raise our families and do business.
I pray God's blessings on our nation and all our people throughout 2011.