Speech by the Prime Minister

Keynote Address By The Most Honourable Andrew Holness ON, PC, MP Prime Minister of Jamaica At the Groundbreaking Ceremony, Union Acres On May 20, 2022

Thank you very much, Trevor.

All the protocols are observed. I’m also observing the COVID protocols, and I wish to commend the NHT in putting on this ceremony in ensuring that everyone is adequately spaced, that 90% of the crowd here gathered is in masks and that all the other infection, prevention and control measures are complied with even though we’re not mandated by law anymore, but just being responsible corporate citizens in ensuring that our actions do not contribute to any spread.

By now everyone would know that we are in the fifth wave. I can however take my mask off because I’m quite some distance away from the audience. Having said all of that, let me greet everyone and say how happy I am again to be in the parish of St James. I was here last week but in a different constituency doing other things but now I’m here in my capacity as the Minister of Housing to treat with housing matters. One other thing I would say director of protocol Berbick, is that in our ceremonies we should really try to keep them very short and I noticed that sometimes the Master of Ceremony, the Director of Protocol, his speeches or her speeches sometimes are longer than the persons who are slated to speak. I noticed that you have accepted brevity as a good character trait and I liked that so the function is moved along quite expeditiously but in general Mr Chairman, Mr. Managing Director, when we keep our ceremonies, we should try to just keep them to the point.

Last week I had the opportunity to say to the audience gathered when we opened the fire station in Montego bay, the regional headquarters in St. James, I had to point out that my good friend in Parliament, Former Chairman of the PNP, Bobby Pickersgill, when he used to give his speeches in Parliament he used to say, “look a speech does not have to be eternal for it to be immortal” and it is so true; the essence of what we are trying to accomplish, we can achieve that in a brief ceremony.

Having said all of that, I want to start off with a statement and I’m going to challenge Oneil Grant to tell me who made this statement. “It is a testament to other colleagues of the Confederation in the last decade who had the courage to postpone immediate benefits for long-term solutions. Make no bones about it, some members of the public sector are getting houses today because thousands of public sector workers made the sacrifice of swapping wages for land and houses. It is a symbol that when Government and social partners put Jamaica first, we can advance our economic and social objectives, even in the middle of a fiscal crisis.”

These words sound applicable today? God rest his soul in peace, Lloyd Goodleigh, former head of the Confederation. I use this quote because Lloyd Goodleigh at the time, was speaking at the handing over of the houses in Union Estates and it was quite an accomplishment, a victory even for the unions to be able to have this agreement finally come to tangible fruition.

In fact, the agreement was struck in 1995. That Government, obviously at that time was struggling to meet the wage demands and the negotiations led to this agreement that the Government would provide land in every parish, 20 acres or more and I believe to date they have identified nine plots of land. I believe they started one and that one has not yet been completed. I believe there are some issues with that one, but then they started Union Estates in St. Catherine. I believe that was a 50-acre property… 40, my recollection it was about 50, but if you say 40 I’ll accept it’s about 40 acres and that one was completed. It was completed by my recollection, it would have been in 2010, thereabout. So, it took some time from 1995 to 2010 to the actual handing over. So not only was it a great sacrifice by thousands of public sector workers and indeed to have the foresight and well-thinking, but it was also a great deal of patience from the point of the agreement to the point of fulfilment. Now we are here from 2010 to 2022, where we are going to start and I gather that the handing over will be in 2023 thereabout so again, another exercise in patience to have this done. It says a lot about the public sector bureaucracy.

Earlier, I addressed the issue of bureaucracy and the need for speed whilst maintaining compliance in bureaucracy and the need for our compliance efforts to be smart, to be technologically driven, so that compliance and the time it takes does not create an incentive for corruption. But the essence of my presentation here today is not to address those matters. It is to say that the Government of Jamaica for the last 40 years, last 50 years, probably a more accurate statement, would have found itself in fiscal crisis. In fact, I would have to search hard to find a point in time in the last five decades when we did not face some form of fiscal crisis, meaning that our revenues were not sufficient to meet all the demands particularly when we had debt to contend with.

We are now at a point where we still face fiscal challenges, but we are in a far better position because we have instituted very robust fiscal rules but more than that, our strong posture for being frugal and for managing the fiscal affairs of the country properly is now ingrained in the culture of the government, certainly this government that I lead.

We’re not going to be profligate and we’re not going to engage in activities that are going to place at risk this hard-won fiscal stability. It was not hard won only by the actions of Government. It was not hard won only by the action of the owners of capital and the private sector. The unions representing labour played an important role in Jamaica achieving fiscal stability today. And the role that they played came mainly through their willingness to negotiate in a corporative spirit with the Government, whether it was as we are now pointing out, land in exchange for wages, sometimes it was transportation, other times it may have been concessions for car, whatever it is; we have been willing. We’ve had this culture emerging coming from the 1930s, those turbulent times to a far more enlightened approach to negotiating our industrial concerns with Government. It has benefited us without question but what it has also done is to create a very complicated system of remuneration where you will have different layers.

You know, the Minister of Finance pointed out the hundreds of layers of remuneration categories, compensation categories that we have and when you have so many layers, it leads to inconsistencies. It leads to inequities because people are sometimes doing the same functions by virtue of the adeptness and adroit nature of their representation at the negotiating table. They have been able to come away with something better than what others would have had and so what it has done is to set up a kind of competition almost, a kind of mistrust at some points too but because we have been negotiating in this way and we have been trying to use other means of providing compensation, with inflation changing dynamics in the workforce, it means that there is a build-up of pressure in our system, particularly in public sector workers, because you know, sometimes promises have been made for things to be done; It hasn’t happened. In this case, it has taken 15 years to do the first one and now another 12 years to do the second one.

In other cases, we see the private sector workers moving up far ahead in some instances and then there is now the issue of the return of inflation in the economy. So, we understand quite well that there is going to be some contention in the wage negotiations with the Government, but there is something profound that is being missed.

This is the first time that any Government has decided to take on this monumental task of carrying out an enterprise-level systematic reform of compensation in the public sector in Jamaica. No one said it was going to be an easy task. Any such undertaking is going to be fraught with challenges, but the important thing is what Lloyd Goodleigh said 12 years ago, the important thing, it is a symbol that when Government and the social partners put Jamaica first, we can advance our economic and social objectives even in a fiscal crisis. Very true and profound words coming from the former head of the Confederation and by the nod of the president of the Civil Service Association, it is endorsed. Those are my few words to the wise.

Now, to the NHT. We will have 144 units built here and they will be appropriately priced so that civil servants can afford them. They will be from what I have seen well-designed two-bedroom units and as is the mandate that every development must take into consideration the wellness of persons who live there so you will have amenities that will allow you to be able to walk if you can’t run and run if you can like the Chairman who runs routinely. You will have well-appointed infrastructure and amenities.

A very quick word on infrastructure, we have seen housing developments done but the true value of the development is not realized because the infrastructure is of substandard quality, whether it is from the curb and sidewalks that are in place or the sewer system that breaks down right after the scheme is open or the road that the surface scoured after the first show of rain. We have given a directive to the NHT, and I know Martin is aware of this and is presently ensuring that this is done. It is not just the houses that have to be strong and resilient, but we must ensure that the infrastructure is also strong and resilient and caters to the wellness of the people who live in the community. And so, I have no doubt that this estate here today will stand the test of time with the houses being able to stand up to all the elements, but certainly, the infrastructure will be properly built to complement the housing.

My final point is that the Assistant General Secretary made the point about… Well, he was giving us a brief history of the formation of the NHT. Again, yes, it was born out of the labour concerns, but you would note that the NHT got its first funding from the NIS. Yes, the NHT was born out of the NIS, the savings of workers, but the NHT is not a welfare Institution and I know when I say this all kinds of people are going to jump up. The NHT is first and foremost a financial institution to support the development of housing in Jamaica. There is an illogical thinking amongst our people where it is believed that if we run our business as a charitable organization almost that we will have the resources to be charitable. I want that point to sink in.

The NHT by virtue of government policy and certainly by the direction that I have given, the NHT has a duty to ensure that it can provide affordable housing. We also use the NHT to assist in social housing, but we don’t take the NHT contributors’ funds and apply it wholesale and totally in that way. What we do is to ensure that the NHT is run properly like a business, and then the dividends from that proper management, that good governance, then we decide how much of it we will use in social housing, how much of it we will use to subsidize housing and how much of it will go back into the market for those people who can afford housing on the market.

So, we are not into this business of using the NHT in such a way that it would place its balance sheet at risk. Every board member here understands the directive that have been given and so thankfully since I’ve been administering the NHT directly out of the Office of the Prime Minister, there has been no issues raised about the NHT, and I want to commend the chairman and the board for the exercise of good oversight and governance. And I want to commend the management for fulfilling the good governance directives and policy directives that have been given to keep the NHT out of trouble and to ensure that it can deliver housing for the people.

Having said that, just to repeat what the NHT mandate is, the Government has put forward the monumental task once again, because this Government is known for doing big things. We take on the big issues, the legacy issues. If the electorate were to just stop for a moment and think about it, which Administration has taken on those really fundamental issues that have been challenging Jamaica for decades, and really take them on and do something about them. Obviously, it would be this Administration without question.

When it comes to road infrastructure and the major water infrastructure, we have taken them on. You’re seeing it going right across Jamaica. As I was coming here, we know there’s a major road problem here. The minister I leave him to deal with that road problem. I gather it is being addressed but the truth is that when it comes to the construction of infrastructure, this government has taken it on. We have now taken on the education system and we’re going to seriously transform that. We have taken on the environmental issues with the Cockpit Country to move ahead with protecting the Cockpit Country and getting the legislation in place.

With housing now, we acknowledge of the housing crisis in Jamaica, and we have put in place a plan now to bring 70,000 housing solutions to the market. Where that hat is hung, we have to tip to reach it. We have to stretch but it is within our reach, it is something that we can do. The NHT plays a critical role in that, and I know I’ve been stretching the NHT to get it done and they have promised me 43,000 houses and I know that you are on your way, but you are experiencing some challenges. No doubt, the fallout in construction prices, energy prices, inflation would’ve caused you to have to revise your budgeted plans but nonetheless, we are still confident that you will be able to deliver your target if not fully, but significantly.

We are at a point now where we are close to completing a plan that will supplement what the NHT is doing. Now, the idea behind this scheme is that the government would provide the land free of cost and the value of the land would help to subsidize the cost of the unit because the development would not have to contemplate the acquisition of the land and therefore the house cost to the civil servants who would benefit would be probably slightly below market. I hope that that is what still pertains in this case the land having been given so many years ago. We want to expand this so we have been going across Jamaica through all the agencies of government identifying lands that can be put into housing.

Now we have identified a certain acreage and we’re going to make that acreage available, some of it, to the NHT to develop so that major cost in the entirety of the cost of housing, which is to acquire land, that that should not be a constraint. Now, other things are going to be constraints, the cost of infrastructure and that is something that we are now examining because once we put in the land, we don’t want to just put down a house and there is no proper sewage, no proper road to get to it, no water supply.

So, the other half of the equation now is that the Government has to now figure out a way how do we treat with the infrastructure and there are several plans. You will hear more about what we intend to do with treating with infrastructure, but clearly the Government would have to treat with the land, which we are very close now to identifying where those lands are and how they will be treated with. The big challenge now is the infrastructure, how are we going to absorb the infrastructure costs to keep the price of the unit affordable and in the reach of the average Jamaican.

It may mean that the Government will have to make some budgetary allocations in this regard, and I close on this point. For every dollar of revenue that we give up, it doesn’t automatically mean that we give up a dollar of expenditure. There are many cries now for the government to give up expended revenue to give fiscal relief. We hear cries regarding fiscal relief for gasoline and other fuels. Government has to very carefully analyze the impact of these fiscal measures on its revenues and its ability to deliver services. I’m not going to call any country’s name, but for those of you who do your research, you would see that there is a country that is going through a serious crisis, a serious crisis right now, and there are many reasons, but one of them would be the conduct of their fiscal policy and various fiscal measures that were taken.

We are very sympathetic to what is happening and as best as we can without causing the entire country to collapse, we have given some relief. We have given some relief, ‘but in strategic ways. In smart ways, we are trying to target those persons who are most vulnerable and who really, really, really, really needed it who are at the bottom of the ladder. We have given some relief for electricity but the conversation that is ongoing is as if the Government hasn’t done anything without any acknowledgment that we are taking resources out of the budget and we are essentially putting it in as a subsidy to consumers who need it. Now, if you give a general break to everybody now, those who need it and those who don’t need it, how do you pay for it?

And would it mean that some of the programmes that we are planning we can’t go ahead with it; such as figuring out how to fund infrastructure in the housing programmes so that the prices can remain low or how we’re going to pay the reformed compensation? I want the country to not just look at issues singularly, everything is connected and every action that you take, there is a reaction and for many unknown and unseen; you only see the problem coming and then you start to say then why did this happen? Well, it happened because we took a decision. So before you are swayed by winds of arguments that are just that, wind, without any proper research, without deep understanding, please, you have the information at your fingertips; just read or ask people who are in the know before we are dragged into positions that don’t make any sense.

I’m speaking generally, but I’m sure you understand what I’m saying. So, with those remarks, it gives me great pleasure to be here at this groundbreaking ceremony. This would be my, maybe a hundred and fifty groundbreakings now, which shows you that I am the working, working, working Prime Minister. God bless you.