State of the Nation Debate 2011 Presentation by Senator Marlene Malahoo Forte


Mr. President As I see it, the state of the nation is that of a house under renovation. 

A caution sign immediately comes to mind: “Pardon the inconvenience as we improve conditions to serve you better."

When you reconstruct, rehabilitate or renovate, the inconveniences you face are infuriating, but you suffer them because you know better will come.

I know that better will come for this nation. I know that right now our problems are many and the inconveniences are great.  But I also know that as a nation, our potential far exceed our problems.

Mr. President, I took the oaths of office as Senator and Minister two years ago (July 15, 2009).  I remain mindful that these are high seats of responsibility, not places of personal privilege.

Some of my friends tell me that I am naive to think that I can make an effective difference to the rebuilding work, as a member of the management team.  They tell me that political office is temporary and thankless. They tell me that my reputation will be tainted. They tell me that the system will change me, before I get an opportunity to change it. 

In response, I tell them that as I see it, naivety is not necessarily a bad thing.  I have asked them to help me focus less on reputation and more on character.  I can control the latter but not the former.  And I have promised that, with their help, I will do all I can to change the system for the better when it tries to change me for the worse.

The truth is that none of us can do this work alone.  I pause here, to say thank you to those who have held my hand: my family, especially my husband; my friends; the staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade-especially my secretary, security and chauffeur.

I care deeply about the plight of the people, which has been made worse over time by deteriorating conditions in critical areas. With so many important decision-making seats residing in the political realm, I couldn’t walk away, without seeking to make my own contribution, to ensure that decisions are made in the interest of the people- to improve their lives.   Each of us has to choose the path we will take when we are at a crossroad.  We have to decide what risks we can afford.

The leader of the management team has taken a deliberate decision to narrow the gender gap on the team, by increasing the number of women.   It is interesting to note that stereotypical thinking, implicit biases and mistakes (rather than conscious decision making in some instances) have combined, over time, to create a huge gap on the team, between the sexes. 

As a female Minister of Government in Foreign Affairs, over the past two years, I have represented Jamaica in many international discussions on many issues, including those affecting women. Last year this time, I was at the XI Regional Conference on Women in Latin America and the Caribbean, which was held July 13-16, 2010, in Brasilia, Brazil.  Later on in September, I attended the 2010 Global Summit of Women in Beijing, China. At both events we took stock of gender issues at the international level, while focusing on empowerment of women at all levels.  

Interestingly, studies show that success and likeability are negatively correlated for women:  The more successful a woman is the less liked she is. Younger women who are both bright and beautiful become victims of slander.  They are the subject of gossip and snide statements and their competence is often overlooked by those seeking to tear them down.

Women have travelled a hard road, to get to a point where they can be strategically positioned to make a meaningful contribution to the work.  But there is still a mighty long way to go.

Mr. President 

Like so many others, I too have deep concerns about the context in which we bid for the work- that is to say, the kind of politics we practise. The political culture is cruel. The political terrain is treacherous.  The ground on which you have to stand is unstable.  If you slip, you slide.

The eminent journalist Ian Boyne puts it this way: “…the political class has done much evil and has left a legacy-a stubborn legacy-of tribalism, partisanship, corruption and criminality that is hard to erase.  There are still too many good people in this country who have mortgaged their souls to our two main political parties; whose consciences are seared with a hot iron, to use biblical phrase, and whose intellectual corruption is as sickening as other forms of corruption.  We hear and read about people in the media who are mindlessly cultic and slavishly devoted to their parties.  Intellectual corruption, in my view, is one of the worst forms of corruption.”

Ouch!!!  These are very strong words, which many do not want to ear.  But they reflect a popular view in some quarters, about politicians.  We need to examine our ways!

People who hold political office are collectively classified as crooks, criminals and charlatans. Although the conduct of some may warrant these portrayals, the description does not fit every holder.  Yet all are lumped together.  Who wants to be so categorised? Not me!

Those seeking office behave as if they are elected officials. Elected officials behave as if they are seeking office.  We denigrate, disparage and degrade each other. We tear down more than we build up.  Elections are won by showing how incompetent the other side is, not by demonstrating how competent you are.  National interest is sacrificed for partisan priorities. Short term political expedience trumps long term policy objectives.

Mr President

The last two years have brought trying and testing times for our people.  The request for the extradition of Christopher Coke came to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Foreign Trade a little over a month after I took up office there.  Among the many profound lessons I have learnt from the handling of this matter is the extent to which we Jamaicans damage the country’s good name, when we criticize ourselves destructively.   The esteem in which we are held overseas, among other things, affect our capacity to source necessary resources to do the work, especially when we have an already tight and overextended budget.

Oh how we need to take care in what we say about our country to foreigners!

As I travelled on official business overseas, I discovered that while the Parliamentary Opposition was tearing down the government over its handling of that request and condemning it, our bilateral partners were focussing on the steps being taken to rebuild the economy.  They were commending the government on its efforts to deal with the real challenges it was facing. 

While there is no denying that issues relating to the manner in which the Coke Extradition Request was handled have been major distractions to all of us, we have to admit that in the midst of the distractions the Administration has done a great deal in the restoration work.

Mr. President

The government has stabilized the economy and positioned it for growth, in the harshest domestic and global context that we have known in recent times. 

Just last week, a close friend of mine in banking told me that she is still angry with the government over the handling of the extradition request, but in all good conscience she could not deny that positive things are happening, particularly in the financial sector where she works. Her hope is being renewed.

Mr. President

Private sector confidence is being restored, although some businesses are still suffering from the blows dealt to them (to their entrepreneurial drive), through, inter alia, the offer of high interest rates for their funds that were borrowed to do the work (that is, the high interest rate policies pursued by the PNP Administration).   They were caused to believe, and did believe, that they did not have to assume risks or make necessary investments in their businesses, because they were guaranteed a handsome return on their loans.  Yesterday (July 14, 2011), in his testimony to the Commission of Enquiry dealing with the FINSAC debacle, Karl Blythe (former Cabinet Minister) acknowledged that the government of which he was a part, erred significantly in maintaining the high interest rate regime.  He said, “No way on God’s earth that no legitimate business, or person on salary, could service these interest rates.”

In my meetings with the private sector, through the mechanism of the Jamaica Trade and Adjustment Team (JTAT) – a consultative committee which I chair at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade- I have heard real life stories about the hardships businesses have been facing, as we grapple with supply side constraints. 

Mr. President

As we proceed with the work of rehabilitating the country, the government cannot do it alone.

A leading lady in media said that she did not think the government deserved the level of commendation it has been getting over the Jamaica Debt Exchange (JDx), because it could not have happened without private sector buy-in. 

It is a fallacy to think that the government can achieve success without assistance of the people, be they in the private or public sector.  When I asked her about the political will it took to embark on that activity, she paused to rethink.  I reminded her that it was this government that convinced the private sector to buy-in.  The former government did not even consider it an option to reason with the private sector. 

We all need to pause and rethink our stance on certain issues.We need to reassess our approach to the work.  A nation will not rise above the collective mood and attitude of its people.  

There is no making light of the efforts to stabilize the economy.  I am thankful that the Golding Government rejected false pride and went back to the IMF, simultaneously tapping the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.  A chorus of cynics may say that the government had no real choice.   That may have been true, but let us not forget that these international financial institutions are in place precisely for the purpose of aiding ailing economies.  Furthermore, not everyone makes the most logical decision. If we had utilised these cheaper sources of funds, instead of borrowing so expensively on the capital markets, our sovereign debt would be less.

My position on the team placement in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade- allows me a bird’s eye perspective. I know that we cannot take too much comfort in the temporary reprieve we have obtained from the JDx and IMF stand-by arrangement.  They give us necessary breathing space, but unless we move to grow the economy, the stability will not sustain.

Although private sector is still recovering from the blow to entrepreneurship, it does not have the luxury of nurturing its wounds.  It has to pick itself up and step up to the plate, so that better private and public partnerships can be forged.   

Mr. President

Those who have done major home renovation know that this work comes with a lot of inconvenience.  House cleaning is also inevitable.  Some things, once regarded as prized possessions, have no place in the newly refurbished space.  They are of no use going forward.  As we take stock, we realize that the only real option we have, is to throw them out.  There is no space for them.  Their continued presence is a contaminant.

Sometimes an important aspect of the renovation requires the tearing down of dividing walls.  Some diving walls box us in and impede our independence and thereby limit our capacity to collaborate.  We need to tear down some dividing walls in this nation (like the orange and green), to enable us to work together.

We need to throw out those things which hinder our progress. Old ways of thinking that enslave us, must be thrown out. We need to renegotiate loyalties. We need to declare and manage real conflicts of interest.

Mr. President

As we seek to rebuild this nation, we will all have to suffer minor and major inconveniences.  ‘Par for the course’, as the saying goes.  As we call for national transformation, we need to realize that transformation is traumatic. 

Sometimes members of the construction team get severely sick, from exposure to contaminants, mirroring the unhealthy state of the house.  After all, they are drawn from family members, perceived as having requisite skills and competencies, who have not relocated while the work has been in progress, and are also those who been exposed to all of the hazards.  Those family members who relocated outside- and now comprise the Diaspora- look on with much concern, understandably so.  Although they are not as burdened, because they have eliminated/minimised their direct exposure, they nonetheless insist on enjoying full family benefits.

Doctors say that when severely sick patients experience trauma and then undergo critical care they sometimes feel worse before they feel better.  Medicine sometimes comes with side effects, triggering other ailments.

This phase of the reconstruction work has exposed a lot of conditions that cause many to wonder, not just about the health of the family- especially the management team- but also whether there may be demonic possession, based on the unmistakeable symptoms.  Is exorcism required?  It is defined to include (in addition to ‘the use of prayer or religious rituals to drive out evil spirits believed to be possessing a person or place’) ‘the act of ridding the mind of oppressive feelings or memories’.

Mr. President,

Incidentally, have you watched the news over the last two days?  The illegal trade in scrap metals has increased by sinking low.  Going underground has taken on a literal meaning. People are opening graves and robbing the dead.  How much more depraved can we get?

There is a mentality in Jamaica which says that poor people must get a break, because times are hard.  It is true that the poor ought be specially looked after, but what we must not do is turn a blind eye when they disregard rules and regulations.  I am not saying that only poor people break the law; in fact many are law abiding citizens. What I am saying is that we must not excuse away unlawful conduct from anyone, perhaps because we (politicians) want the vote, or any other benefit to be derived from turning a blind eye.  This is a mentality that is holding us back!

Minor infractions often escalate up, to major lawlessness. Over time disorder is the new order.  I am amazed at how everybody wants justice but not everybody wants to obey laws.  Perhaps because law and justice do not always coincide? Some people believe that it is an act of care when our leaders break the law on their behalf, but an act of corruption when they do so on behalf of others.  This is a mentality that is holding us back!

When I was on the Bench, something puzzled me greatly.  I couldn’t understand how anyone would resist change to the administration of justice when everyone agreed that the system was broken and in need of fixing.  I confess that it took me a long time to fully understand that people have vested interests in the status quo, as inefficient as it is. They will fight to keep broken systems in place.  Change represents loss to them- loss to confidence, competence and consortium.

I have learnt, through my own attempts to lead adaptive change that sometimes you have to disappoint people (those who gain from the status quo) as you seek to improve conditions (but you must do it at a rate they can absorb).  

Mr. President

I came to professional life in the 1990s, at the public bar and then on the bench (in the Magistracy).  I will not deny that progress was made in many areas since then. 

Here is where I take serious issue with the former management team which formed the Government up until September 2007.   In too many important instances, it sacrificed national interest on the altar of partisan politics.  It failed to pursue sound policies in areas that would have allowed us to tap into the growth that was taking place globally – especially in the Americas. When the rest of the world grew economically, we experienced decline. 

We liberalised the economy too soon and too fast.

In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign we grapple with the adverse consequences of some of the premature/bad decisions that were taken.   On the foreign trade side, we negotiated many trading arrangements (like the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between CARIFORUM and the European Union, without first doing necessary (cost-benefit) analyses.  The actual benefits we derive from these agreements fall woefully short of potential benefits, because supply side constrains were not addressed.

I am pleased that there are many issues that this Administration has been working on, to better impact governance.  Admittedly, some are very difficult, with no easy answers.  I note, however, that every attempt is being made to sort out the technical issues for which solutions are known and need only be applied, after necessary diagnosis.

Mr. President

When the current management team made its takeover bid for the reconstruction work it had no access to important inside information.  Opposition never did.  Parts of the structure that appeared solid from outside turned out to be made of veneer.  This Administration deserves commendation for implementing important reform in the other House.  All Sessional Committees are (now) chaired by the Opposition.  This has achieved unprecedented level of transparency in the conduct of parliamentary proceedings.  Additionally, the business of both Houses is broadcast live via PBCJ – a creature of the Golding Government.

 

Mr. President

Good things have been happening, as the work progress; and better things are to come.  But all things come at a price, sometimes at a bargain.

I am particularly pleased that for the first time we have a plan with bi-partisan support.

There is a National Development Plan-VISION 2030- to guide the work of providing a secure and prosperous future, by transforming our country into “…the place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business.”

If we are to realize the set goals, a major shift in the political culture must take place.  It requires greater collaboration in all areas.  Our overseas relatives -the Diaspora- have indicated their willingness to help with the work.  We will have to get them fully on board.

Mr. President

I make my contribution to the State of the Nation Debate on the eve of the celebration of Jamaica’s Jubilee year, marking the start of our 50th year as an independent nation.

We will walk this path but once.  How will we respond to the challenges we face along the journey?

For my part, I am convinced that there is tremendous significance and opportunity as we approach and celebrate this great milestone in our journey as a nation.  We cannot afford to disregard the responsibility that falls on us as leaders at this time and in this generation.

You know, in Biblical times, the year of jubilee was a time of great rejoicing and happiness.  It was time when God met with His people in a very special way.  It signalled freedom from captivity, the restoration of what was lost, a chance to redeem and be redeemed.  It heralded an opportunity for change, a chance for healing and a window of deliverance.  It was a spiritual event that worked on the basis of an announcement or a proclamation by the leaders throughout the land, and required of those who would benefit that they engage in forgiveness and atonement.

What are the lessons here for us as a nation?

Mr. President,

Would it not be wonderful for Jamaica to recover in our jubilee year that which we have lost; and to move into a new realm of justice, righteousness and prosperity as a people?

Have we not lost much of what has been bequeathed to us by our forefathers-our values of honesty, decency, respect, integrity? Have many of us not been held captive by a mentality of greed and expediency; of mediocrity and complacency; of mendicancy and apathy?  Have we not allowed sickness and disease; wickedness and baseness to take hold of our family life, our communities, and aspects of our culture? 

When you occupy a run-down dilapidated house, you are constantly exposed to the elements, which sometimes harm you in so many ways.  On top of that, you are not as secure as you should be; you are also the targets of thieves, who sometimes rob you of your valuables.

Is it not time to redeem the major apartments of the house- the seven institutions of this land- the family, the religious system, the educational system, the culture, the media, the economy & private enterprise and government & politics- from the stranglehold of the enemy?  Have we not a debt to the generations that succeed us to bequeath to them an inheritance of justice, peace and righteousness as a nation?

Mr. President,

I submit that the answer to all these questions is a resounding yes!

I submit further that the opportunity is here and the time is now. 

We are predominantly a Christian nation, deeply spiritual, with religion forming a central part of our culture. We pray at every sitting of our Parliament!  Yet some feel that it is inappropriate to frame parliamentary issues through spiritual lenses. 

For my part, I acknowledge God Almighty as the master builder.  As part of His rescue plan, He sent His Son, as our Saviour, to die to make everything possible for us.  The world has a way of destroying truth bearers.  In the paradox of life, though, some things have to die for other things to be born.

Many good men and women-on both sides of the Houses of Parliament, as well as outside the Houses- have worked hard to put the institutions in place that carry us forward as a nation.

We are, at heart, a good and great people.  We are admired the world over for our prowess and creativity; for our hospitality and good humour.  But yet we have been held back as a nation by burdens and cares; and bound by baggage and blame that block our blessings and our inheritance as a nation.

Mr. President

Our fiftieth anniversary-our own modern day jubilee- is upon us. 

It is time for renewal, a chance for redemption, an opportunity for breakthrough.  Let us proclaim it in this august Senate.  Let us announce it at the highest levels in our land.  Let it resound throughout the length and breadth of Jamaica and infuse in each and every Jamaican a new spirit of hope and expectation for a brighter today and a blessed tomorrow.  And as we do so, let us engage in acts of national repentance, led by the leaders of our nation. 

Let us unite in admitting our error of ways, and atone for the blood that has been spilled; the lives that have been lost; the inheritance that has been stolen; the potential that has been snuffed out; the promise that has been unfulfilled.

Let us proclaimed the year of favour- the acceptable year of the Lord!

The time is now.  The mission is ours.  The promise is great.

Mr. President

I have spoken about the work we have before us to repair and reconstruct the house that is Jamaica (some may even say Jamaica House).  But, as we all know, “except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it” (Psalm 127:1).

I thank you!

JIS Social