Andrew takes charge

New PM targets garrison politics, ballooning debt

BY INGRID BROWN Senior staff reporter browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, October 24, 2011

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ANDREW Michael Holness was yesterday sworn in as Jamaica's ninth and youngest prime minister and immediately placed at the top of his agenda the dismantling of political garrisons — a moving target for many politicians — and the country's ballooning debt.


Immediately after taking stewardship of the Government, Holness wasted no time getting down to business as he told the hundreds in attendance at his swearing-in ceremony at King's House in St Andrew that he has now taken direction of the country.


In an almost hour-long speech which touched on varying issues affecting the country, Holness sought the assistance of Opposition Leader Portia Simpson Miller to ensure that garrison politics is eliminated.


Unfortunately, Simpson Miller was not there to hear his appeal, as she left before his address. Last night, Julian Robinson, the deputy general secretary of the Opposition People's National Party (PNP), said Simpson Miller had a previous engagement and had informed the organisers.


Holness, who has disputed claims that his West Central St Andrew constituency is a garrison, said he intends to write to Simpson Miller, inviting her to discuss the issue of co-ordinating access to closed communities for representatives of differing political persuasion.


"Both political parties have it within them to mutually agree to end the social construct of the garrison," he said to rousing applause from both bell-ringing supporters of his ruling Jamaica Labour Party and dignitaries.


Noting that it will not happen overnight nor by force, Holness pointed to the importance of people living in these areas being able to see other political representatives without the objection of enforcers.


The process, he said, should begin with the political leaders walking together in these areas of exclusion.


"I am willing to walk with the leader of the opposition in Tower Hill and I may just turn up in Whitfield Town," he said.


Tower Hill is a community in Holness's constituency, while Whitfield Town is one of the communities sitting in Simpson Miller's South West St Andrew riding.


The 39-year-old Holness, who was elevated to chief public servant just three weeks after his predecessor Bruce Golding announced his decision to give up that office, also urged fellow politicians to transcend petty, mean-spirited, tear-down politics, erase lines of demarcation that created garrisons and open the doors of exclusion.


Hopefully, this step, he said, will lead to other steps that will eventually remove garrisons from the political landscape.


Holness, the former education minister, also extended an invitation to "talented people" both at home and in the diaspora, who want to see this change in Jamaica to make themselves available, and assured them that a space will be found in his Government to accommodate them.


"Jamaica needs her talented sons and daughters in the service of the public good, now more than ever," he said, adding that the contribution does not have to be in the political domain but in civil society as well.


Turning to the issue of the country's ballooning debt, Holness said Jamaica cannot continue to borrow more than is produced in value.


Pointing to Government's plan to gradually reduce the debt, the new prime minister said the first strategy in borrowing less will be to get more revenue.


This, he said, can only be done by increasing the efficiency and simplicity of the tax administration and waiver systems.


Jamaica, a sovereign nation, he said, has chosen to live on borrowed money for the last 40 years, some of which has been wasted on ill-conceived ideas or simply been eroded by mismanagement, corruption and bureaucracy.


"We are caught in a vicious cycle of borrowing to the point where for more than a decade, the size of our debt has been larger than the value of what we produce each year," Holness said.


But he said Jamaica cannot continue to borrow indefinitely as a palliative for short-term gratification of social needs, and as such it has fallen to his generation to confront this problem.


Meanwhile, in a seeming continuation of the Golding-led Government policies, Holness spoke to the issue of the staggering public sector wage bill, the need to diversify the country's energy source, promoting investment and greater utilisation of public/private partnerships.


He also gave the assurance that Government intends to stick to the plans it has agreed to with domestic and international stakeholders.


Turning to the issue of poverty, Holness said the first step in fighting this scourge is giving access to education, and declared that his Government fully intends to achieve universal secondary education early in the next decade.


As for access to state services and amenities, which he maintained is one way to alleviate poverty, Holness informed that it is now time to review the Programme for Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) to ensure that eligible and needy persons are not excluded.


In an obvious jab at the PNP's recently announced Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme (JEEP) — which critics say is a reintroduction of its 1970s 'crash programme' — Holness said Jamaica's poor need meaningful employment and not "crash work".


The new prime minister urged Jamaicans to make a decisive break from the elements of the past and commit to building a society where those who play by the rules will succeed.


Already, Holness has conceded that the days ahead will not be easy but said he has found comfort in the words accredited to Mother Teresa: "Give the best you have and it will never be enough... give your best anyway."


Earlier, Governor General Sir Patrick Allen, in his address, expressed thanks to outgoing prime minister Golding for his leadership during the harsh economic times the country has been through.


"You knew and understood the times, and in your way tried to do what you felt was best for Jamaica. History will judge whether you succeeded," he said.


 


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