The Most Honourable Andrew Holness, ON, PC, MP
Prime Minister of Jamaica
Townhall in Washington DC
December 4, 2023
As I survey the in-house audience, and I look at those who have joined us virtually online, first, let me wish you all a happy season. Well, let me just say Merry Christmas when it comes. Merry Christmas when it comes. These days you try to be as politically correct as possible but look, we’ve grown up with saying Merry Christmas when it comes.
I am particularly looking forward to Christmas this year. I’m hoping to get a few days break. It may not materialize, but well, I am looking forward to Christmas, but I don’t take your presence for granted. It is a pretty cold weather here and you have come out in your numbers to be with me directly, personally, and I appreciate that. And it is always fascinating that wherever I go, wherever I travel, there is a community of Jamaicans who feel that it is their duty, their patriotic duty to come out and represent to identify themselves.
You know, you’d be in a sea of foreigners, and you must show that I am Jamaican. So, it’s just an amazing sense of who we are and how proud we are. It doesn’t matter how we quarrel with each other and the contentions we have, we’re very proud to be Jamaican. Jamaica is a brand, and it’s a brand that is useful to all of us, particularly persons who are overseas; that brand helps to identify you, in some instances it’s your protection, it’s your means of access and it is something that we should all value. We all benefit from the brand, and we all have the potential to contribute to the brand and likewise, we all have the potential to take away from the brand. So, the brand is our national patrimony, and we must protect it.
Now, it is sometimes said but quite profoundly put by one of our excellent academics Professor Emeritus at Harvard, Professor Orlando Patterson, that Jamaica is the confounding island. I don’t know how many of you have read his book, I would encourage you to read his book. It is a very good synopsis of post-independence Jamaica and our challenges. And I wish to start my presentations there.
So, Jamaica is the little train that could, and we should have been, and we still can be the train that did. For what our potential is, what our resources are, what our capacities are, we should have achieved much more than we have achieved. But having said that, we should also acknowledge that for what our challenges are, from what our historical struggles are, we have achieved a significant amount of which we can be proud. So, those two extremes are the realities; we have achieved much, but we could achieve much more.
So, we are in what I like to think of as the continual struggle for development and we’re not doing too badly these days. There are monumental challenges, but we have managed to overcome. At my recent party conference, I laid out a kind of new direction for Jamaica. When I took over the administration in 2016, the line of effort that the government would pursue could be described as securing Jamaica’s economic independence. I’m not going to delve too much into that, some of those points will come out later I’m sure with the questions you ask, but securing our economic independence was a priority that really meant repairing our country’s debt situation returning our country to growth, putting in a strong fiscal and monetary policy, doing deep institutional reforms to ensure that we can deliver employment, deliver infrastructure, deliver a social safety net, proper transportation system, proper garbage collection; all of those things are now in the works. I’m not saying we have solved the problem, but we have a solution that is in the works. It is working and it is delivering revenues in a consistent basis that we don’t have to increase taxes.
Can you imagine a government of Jamaica for the last 7 years that has not increased taxes? We take it for granted easily with all the other things that occupy our mind or frustrate us, we take that very fundamental point for granted, but it is incontrovertible that it is the case. Jamaica has never been in a position to immediately recover from a shock, and you can just think about it, just reflect whether it is hurricane Gilbert, whether it is an oil price shock, whether it is the fallout in bauxite prices, whether it was FINSAC, whatever it is whether it is the 2008 financial crisis. In fact, in the 2008 financial crisis, we did not return to our 2009 GDP until 10 years after.
After the pandemic, Jamaica recovered within a year. In fact, we are doing much better post-pandemic. Bear in mind, before the pandemic our lowest unemployment rate was 6.5%. Post-pandemic, our lowest unemployment rate is 4.5%; that’s the lowest ever in our history. Our debt is returning to the trajectory which we intended it to. We are now at 74% of GDP. And we need to repeat that but the point I’m making is that the government has been successful in establishing Jamaica on the path to our economic independence. The economic independence is, you would call this a kind of philosophical direction of the government and maybe at another time I’ll delve into what it means to be economically independent as a country. Jamaica is politically independent, but that political independence is not complete unless we can in many ways stand on our own two feet, recover from shocks, whether they be man-made or natural disasters.
Our economic independence means that we can take care of the issues we face internally whether it is to make sure we get the best education, have the best public order, take care of our environment and natural assets and that’s what we’ve been doing but we have a new mission now. And as members of the diaspora, I want to share with you what is the- I wouldn’t say new direction, because we’re still on our path for economic dependence, but what is the parallel track that we’re laying now where we will be shifting attention and focus and that is peace and productivity.
Peace and productivity, what do we mean by peace? Jamaica is not at war but we could equally argue that at times it would appear that we are not at peace, that there’s just too many localized conflicts, internecine wars, almost like feuds which are costing lives. Violence has just pervaded the fabric of our society. It is becoming a feature of our brand and we have to address it. We have to address this issue of violence.
Now, we have dealt with violence before as a society. Some of you in this room, by virtue of just looking at your faces and making assumptions about your ages, would have been around in the 70s and 80s when a particular kind of violence took root in Jamaica, political violence, when our elections were marred by violence. Nowadays we have elections almost seamlessly. Violence is not a feature anymore of our politics and how did we do that? We passed legislation to manage our electoral process. We put in place the Electoral Office of Jamaica, the Electoral Commission of Jamaica. We passed laws to ensure that if violence was used in an election, we could easily void the elections. We took instrumental action to ensure that violence was not a feature of our political system anymore and we were successful.
And I use this example to say that if we can come together as a nation to treat with this issue of violence we can be successful in dealing with domestic violence, intimate partner violence, but more importantly, well, violence in parenting, violence in organized criminal activity, we can address this issue of socialized violence and that is going to be a direction of the government. We are going to mobilize, coordinate, and direct resources towards this problem of violence in Jamaica. It means we are going to have to deal with things like hate speech; it’s not a feature yet in the Jamaican society but you in the diaspora, many of you live in society where speech that deliberately targets violence at a group or a person is treated within law.
In Jamaica, there is really no such thing, we have to consider that. In Jamaica, sometimes the inviolability of the person, the physical person is not protected as strongly as it should. You live in a society where you have to consider the physical being of the person and not violate it. We believe it’s easy to just touch people and to physically harm people, that has to be addressed. That’s a part of the issue of treating with randomized violence, violence that accompanies sexual abuse, intimate partner violence.
We also have to treat with how we discipline our children. That is a touchy subject. There are many religious considerations for that but I’m certain that the biblical rod did not necessarily prescribe a stick and therefore we have to consider how corporal punishment is controlled in our society. We already have laws controlling corporal punishment, certainly at the early childhood level but throughout the society, this is something that we’re going to need to contain. So, all of these are things that we’re studying.
We are a democracy, so this will have to go through an elaborate process, an elongated process even of social discourse so that we can treat with it and in the diaspora, I think you would have an incredible role to play in helping to guide the conversation back in Jamaica as you would be able to share your own experience living in other societies that have sought to regulate violence and what it means and the benefits of it. I think you would have such an important role to play in talking to your family back in Jamaica about the importance of controlling violence and how controlling violence increases the wellbeing of all Jamaicans. You would have that critical role, so the government is going to focus on that in a direct and deliberate way.
The other pathway that we are establishing is the issue of productivity. Again, another confounding critique of Jamaica. You know, we have the fastest man and woman in the world. I only wish we could do business at the speed of Usain Bolt. The truth is that all of you here complain and would want it but would you raise your voice in support of a public service that is- I’m going to use my words carefully, that has KPIs, (key performance indicators)? A public service that has performance management would you say that this is important for a society’s economic independence? This is important for growth. This is important for an improvement in public service. Again, the diaspora has such an important role to play because you live in societies where you experience business at the speed of thought.
And that kind of cross dialogue needs to happen so that the development of new frameworks for how we manage performance is not viewed as an imposition of a kind of, again, choosing my words carefully, as an imposition of trying to force production out of people. And I’m certain I’m communicating the idea that a new performance management could be looked upon in a negative way, but it is important if we’re going to make the transition to the next level.
We’re right at this phase of take-off. We’re on the runway with our economic program. It’s going well, but for it to be sustained the country has to transition to another level where we deal with this issue of violence which is destroying our peace; it’s a social cost to violence. And then improve our productivity because it is from our productivity that we’re going to get increased wages, keep supporting infrastructure development and sustain our peace so those are two critical platforms that we have to be on. And that’s where the new direction of the government is going to be.
We’re going to maintain our economic performance, that track of economic independence is ongoing, but we need to be on this track of peace and increased productivity and to do all of this requires a partnership. It requires every Jamaican to be a partner in this, at home and abroad.
I’m certain we’ve taken the time to identify the trajectory in such a way that even if you’re not a supporter of the government, or you don’t believe in the people who are leading the government, but at least the ideas must make sense and resonate with you because these are not ideas that are exclusive to one government, these are nationally important. So, whoever is the government must deal with peace, they must deal with productivity, and they must maintain the pathway for economic independence and that’s what we’re trying to do. So, these are nationally important goals and I think the diaspora will have a very important role. I think I’ve talked enough and I’m open for your questions.