Senator Don Wehby, who is also GraceKennedy’s Group CEO, closed the “State of the Nation Debate 2021/22” in the Senate with his presentation “ Out of Many One People -We care for all Jamaicans”
Below is his full address:
“Mr President, today I have the privilege of closing the State of the Nation Debate for 2021/2022.
I want to express appreciation on behalf of all of us, to those who have contributed to the debate with thought-provoking expositions about matters affecting Jamaica.
The world is watching us in this House, including the children, some of whom I hope will be inspired to become Senators one day. As the Upper Chamber of the Parliament, the discussions are expected to be of the highest standards and based on the principles of respect and humility.
In my opinion, there have been times when the principles of respect and humility are non-existent. I understand the nature of the Westminster system of government, but I believe we can leave some of the politico, which creeps into the Senate discussions, for the political platform and be more respectful of each other. The world is watching us!
Mr President, as we look forward to celebrating Jamaica 60, our diamond jubilee this year, I believe it is time for us to reflect on how we as leaders can position ourselves as role models for the people we serve. We need to demonstrate more servant leadership.
Our National Heroes made great sacrifices and gave of their lives so we can celebrate independence. There are other great Jamaicans who have served their country like Bob Marley, who is one of my heroes. A lot of persons are uplifted by his music. Songs such as Get up Stand Up, One Love and Three Little Birds to name a few Mr President, as we each play our role as citizens of this beautiful country, I am reminded that on April 3, 1962, the Chairman of the Independence Celebrations Committee (Theodore Sealy) declared that Jamaica’s Independence motto would be, “OUT OF MANY, ONE PEOPLE”. So, whether you are rich or poor, black or white, if you love green or orange, if you are from uptown or downtown, if you are a have or a have not, we are ONE JAMAICA. The Governor General in his throne speech in 2009 called for greater co-operation and unity among us as the nation’s leaders. The Government and the Opposition, we must set the example as the Governor General charged us to “be constantly engaged in a new dialogue, respectful of their differences, but deeply mindful that the Jamaica that unites us is infinitely greater than the political parties that divide us.”
COVID-19 has reminded us that pain and suffering does not care about the colour of your skin or your social status. We are in this together, and together we can all recover from this crisis.
Mr President, a lot has happened since the debate was opened on June 25, 2021, and we are now in a new year, which we look forward to with hope, despite the challenges we will face in 2022. So today, I want to close the debate by reflecting on our performance as a nation; our strengths and weaknesses, and do so in the context of our Vision 2030 to make “Jamaica, the place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business.” Under the theme “OUT OF MANY ONE PEOPLE”, “We Care for All Jamaicans”.
During 2021, the Government passed over 30 legislation to support the proper functioning of the country in the areas of governance, economic and social welfare, public services and national security. Some of the legislation passed include:
- Sexual Harassment (Protection and Prevention) Act,
- Criminal Justice (Suppression of Criminal Organisations) (Amendment) Act, 2021
- National Identification and Registration Act,
- International Corporate and Trust Services Providers (Change of Name and Amendment) Act,
- Trademarks (Amendment) Act,
- Disabilities Regulations
I was also very pleased that the Public Bodies Management and Accountability (Nomination, Selection and Appointment to Boards) Regulations, to improve the corporate governance framework for the boards of public bodies was also passed.
I commend us as a Senate for the work we did to review these laws and ensure that the best possible legislation is passed, to provide the framework for the effective governance of the country. I want to congratulate Senator Kamina Johnson Smith for her excellent leadership in this House as Leader of Government Business.
Mr President, Jamaica has just under nine years to achieve its Vision 2030. National goal #1 under Vision 2030 is “Jamaicans will have a healthy and stable population”. For almost two years the world has grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic which has posed a risk to achieving this outcome, impacting our daily lives, threatening everyone’s health and safety.
We have all been negatively affected by this terrible virus, whether through the loss of a loved one or friend, or simply by witnessing the impact of the pandemic on the welfare of the most vulnerable in our society – the elderly and our children.
Thankfully, the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccination programmes worldwide has been ongoing. It has been very disheartening for me to know that except for Haiti, Jamaica’s COVID-19 vaccination rate is the lowest in the Caribbean. This is despite the availability of vaccines in Jamaica and the billions of dollars spent on the vaccination programme.
Mr President, we have to take stock of why the rate of vaccination is so low and what are we doing about it. I have been an advocate of getting vaccinated. It has always been my hope that every adult Jamaican would take the decision to get vaccinated. An RJR news report quoted the Chief Medical Officer that during the period March to October last year 98 per cent of the persons that died from COVID-19 infections were unvaccinated.
Mr President, there has been a robust education and public awareness campaign to educate Jamaicans about the safety and importance of getting vaccinated. I want to recognise the Government for its efforts despite hesitancy among Jamaicans. A lot of misinformation is being circulated about the vaccines, especially on social media, which is detrimental to the vaccination programme.
As leaders, we need to send a message of solidarity about the importance of getting vaccinated. We cannot afford to send mixed messages. We must lead by example with a single voice.
Our public health team has gone above and beyond to take the vaccination to Jamaicans. I want to say a special thank you to the public health team who has been at the forefront of the vaccination effort. I also want to thank our international partners for the access to vaccines and donations. As well as the private sector, [which has] contributed to this effort. However, I believe we can do more to expand access to the vaccines. We need to take the vaccines to the people in places where they frequent, every nook and cranny. I understand over 50 pharmacists have been trained to administer the COVID-19 vaccines. In my opinion, every pharmacy with a pharmacist trained to administer the vaccines should be a vaccination centre. In the United States, pharmacies are standard locations for vaccines to be administered. We need to make it easier for Jamaicans to get vaccinated at convenient locations.
I look forward to the day when our children can safely return to face to face learning and can again take advantage of the immeasurable benefits and simple joy that experience brings. I take this opportunity again to encourage every Jamaican who has not yet taken the vaccine to get vaccinated!
National Goal #3 under Vision 2030 is Jamaica’s economy is prosperous. This Government must be commended for the management of this crisis that none of us has seen in our lifetime, which resulted in the worst economic contraction in Jamaica’s history. I don’t think this pandemic and its economic effects are in any way comparable to the commodity price shocks in the 1970’s and 80’s, or the global financial recession in 2009.
International organisations such as the IMF have commended the Government on its management of the pandemic noting that, in the past, with these types of economic shocks, Jamaica would have suffered fiscal, financial, or balance of payments crisis, but with good management of the economy, this did not happen with the COVID pandemic. In my opinion, the Government gets an A+ for its management of the economy through this crisis. I’ll just highlight a few of the key economic achievements in 2021 which were underpinned by the Government’s prudent fiscal management.
Growth of economy
The economy grew by 12.9 per cent in the second quarter of 2021 and another 5.8 per cent during the third quarter. This growth exceeds the pace of recovery of our Caribbean peer countries.
Mr President, this is testament to Jamaica’s resilience as a country. But we are not out of the woods just yet. We will have to continue to make the decisions that will help us to achieve full recovery to pre-pandemic performance. I’m seeing some serious headwinds going forward as it relates to global inflation which Jamaica cannot escape being an import-dependent country. In the USA, the inflation rate was seven per cent last year, the highest since June 1982.
In October 2021, Standard & Poors again affirmed Jamaica’s B credit rating and revised Jamaica’s outlook from negative to stable.
Net international reserves
Mr President, you will recall when I opened the debate, I indicated that the Net international reserves were up US$3.42 billion at the end of May 2021. Well at the end of August 2021 the NIR was US$3.88 billion.
Business and consumer confidence
Business and consumer confidence improved in the fourth quarter of 2021, the highest level for 2021 and an increase over the same period in 2020. This is a positive sign as we continue to lay the foundation for economic recovery.
Mr President, a $3 billion SERVE Jamaica Programme, was launched for micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) to reset their operations. MSMEs account for more than 90 per cent of all firms, 60 per cent of employment and 40-60 per cent of output in most economies. So, this programme was designed to directly impact the cookshop owner, the hairdresser, the plumber, the barber, the furniture man around the road. Not the large companies but those small businesses that put food on the table of so many families while contributing to national development.
We care for all Jamaicans!
The Companies Office of Jamaica had another record 2021 with 17,039 businesses and 4,878 companies being registered. This represents a 33 per cent increase over 2020. This is fantastic in terms of these businesses formalizing to seize growth opportunities.
The debt to GDP ratio is projected to fall to 97 per cent in the upcoming fiscal year. This is based on the projections for economic growth for 2021/2022. To place this in context, the debt to GDP ratio at the end of 2016/2017 was 115 per cent.1This is a remarkable achievement by the Government in light of a pandemic to achieve this reduction in the debt to GDP ratio.
Social and Economic Recovery and Vaccine (SERVE) Jamaica programme
Mr President, the Vision 2030 outcome under National Goal #1 is effective social protection. Governments across the world have been responding to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic by supporting the most vulnerable segments of their population to face the economic hardships brought on by the pandemic.
Mr President, I borrow the words of the late Edward Seaga “it takes cash to care”. The Government has spent over J$100 billion on social protection and recovery support without borrowing.
The Government made interventions under the SERVE Programme, and grants under the Government’s COVID Allocation of Resources for Employees (CARE) Programme. Vulnerable persons in six categories received benefits.
PATH beneficiary households; NIS pensioners; employees earning below $15,000 per week; self-employed persons earning less than $60,000 per month; unemployed persons; and under the Social Pension Programme, a guaranteed income has been provided for vulnerable persons 75 years and older. An estimated 5,000 persons are enrolled in this programme.
The Government announced a massive $1 billion care package food to provide food to families of the most vulnerable Jamaicans who continue to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Minister of Finance indicated that it is a food drive unlike any other he has seen before.
In addition, Jamaica received support from our international partners. In November last year, the United Nations World Food Programme commenced the provision of US$1.085 million over three months to 10,000 poor families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic which would not qualify for a PATH benefit.
Mr President, Jamaicans are a proud set of people when it comes to being independent. We like to know we have “wi own tings”. The average Jamaican wants meaningful work so they can provide for themselves and their family and not have to “depen’ pon people”. If we create meaningful jobs that enable Jamaicans to earn a decent standard of living, then we can foster independence and a better life for Jamaicans.
Jamaica has not been spared from the ripple effect of the pandemic in terms of job loss. But the good news is that the unemployment rate, as at October 2021, was 7.1 per cent.
This is trending downwards from the pre-pandemic rate of 7.2 per cent as more jobs are created for the people.
Mr President, we can therefore see the correlation between job creation and poverty reduction. In June last year, the poverty rate was 11 per cent, the second-lowest on record. When you look back at 2015, the poverty rate was 21 per cent, the highest in two decades.
Another important initiative to propel us towards Vision 2030 is unemployment insurance. Unemployment insurance is a social protection mechanism that can buffer the effects of income loss and create a safety net for vulnerable Jamaicans. I am looking forward to the completion of the unemployment insurance feasibility study under the direction of the Ministry of Finance.
Mr President, you will recall I said when I opened the debate that the Government is on track to meet its target to deliver 70,000 housing solutions in five years under its private-public sector cooperation initiative. It is every Jamaican’s dream to own their own home. A housing revolution is in the making to deliver housing solutions across the island at reasonable costs. Several developments are in various stages of completion while some units have been handed over. Some of these housing units, being constructed, will be reserved for the country’s young professionals, including nurses, teachers, police officers, soldiers, lawyers and doctors.
Low-income housing is also being provided through the New Social Housing Programme. The units range from one to three bedrooms. Over 380 units will be available over the next year. There are several methods by which recipients can be selected, including through an application by a member of parliament who identifies a need in their constituency.
Mr President, National Goal 4 under Vision 2030 is Jamaica has a natural, healthy environment. This goal aligns with the Sustainable Development Goals. The Government is committed to protecting the environment and ensuring environmental sustainability.
In 2017, a boundary was declared for the proposed Cockpit Country boundaries. There has been some miscommunication around whether there will be mining in the Cockpit Country area.
My understanding is that no mining or any other related activity that could harm the environment in the Cockpit Area proposed for protection.
Mr President, it should be noted that Jamaica will become the first country in the world to develop a predictive climate risk assessment planning tool for major infrastructure investments.
This is part of the country’s national strategy which includes development partners and the private sector. Resilience-building efforts will also be boosted by a US$1 million grant from India to support the construction of facilities for sustainable agriculture.
The Government also recognises the imperative to address informal, irregular, and dangerous settlements in unsustainable areas of the country over the next few years. The Government will relocate these persons to locations with better conditions.
In terms of innovation for resilience and sustainability, the Government has conceptualised a pumped hydroelectric storage project utilising our mountainous topography and abundant sunlight to solve our perennial problem of droughts while also generating hydroelectric power.
The Government has also made progress with its commitment to preserving the environment, notably in the following areas:
- 14 forestry orders which remain unprecedented.
- The declaration of the Black River Morass area.
- Completion of the Parish Development Orders.
- The significant increases in capacity and connection to proper sewage systems.
- The tabling and enacting of a Modern Biodiversity policy.
- The ongoing project to plant more than three million trees and restore damaged mangrove forests.
Mr President, I don’t wish to play the blame game but Goat Island, which was supposed to be turned into a coal plant, has, under this Government, been turned into a nature reserve.
In January of 2021, the final phase of the ban on single-use plastic bags and polystyrene came into effect. This tremendous decision by the government garnered global commendation with a Forbes Magazine article titled, Banning Plastic: How Jamaica Moved To Save Its Environment.
Just recently the GraceKennedy Foundation hosted its annual beach clean-up exercise and one of my executives commented that it was the first time in years plastic bags weren’t among the garbage collected along the waterfront downtown. That speaks millions to the positive impact of this Government’s environmental initiatives.
It’s precisely because of these actions why the international community regards Jamaica as a leader in Environmental protection and the fight against Climate Change.
This is evidenced by the prime minister being invited to co-chair the UN SG’s effort to replenish the Global Climate Fund by targeting US$100 billion in funds with President Macron of France and the Amir of Qatar.
It’s further evidenced by the PM being invited to address the G7 and G20 re the climate fight, and his membership to the High-Level Panel for Sustainable Ocean Economy convened by PM Solberg of Norway
So, these achievements are not a trite matter. There is more work to be done but the Government continues to do its part to preserve the planet and secure the environment for future generations.
Mr President, I also wanted to mention a project which supports the Government’s various environmental initiatives. The GraceKennedy Foundation is partnering with International NGO Ocean Cleanup and Clean Harbours Jamaica Limited to implement a pilot project to prevent waste from gullies entering the Kingston Harbour.
I believe this is a game-changer for Kingston Harbour as it’s the first practical initiative to address a major pollution issue that has damaged the mangroves and fisheries. It is another example of private-public partnership for a better Jamaica. I want to take time out to wholeheartedly thank every Government entity and every private sector interest that has come forward to support this Project.
Mr President, successive administrations have grappled with the scourge of crime. There have been different approaches put forward to tackling the crime problem with varying degrees of success. I personally rely on the leadership and expertise of the Jamaica Constabulary Force and Jamaica Defence Force (JDF). I have a lot of confidence in Commissioner of Police, Major General Anderson, and newly appointed Chief of Defence Staff Rear Admiral Antonette Wemyss-Gorman. I take this opportunity to extend congratulations to Rear Admiral Antonette Wemyss Gorman on her appointment to lead the JDF and thank Lieutenant General Rocky Meade for his years of leadership and service to his country.
I have served for three terms in the Senate and it was the most disappointing moment for me on November 25, 2021, when the Opposition senators voted against the extension of the States of Emergency (SOE). While I understand the independence of the Senate it has to be noted that the vote against the SOE was despite the Lower House (including the opposition members) approving the extension. I was very disappointed that only two Opposition senators were present when the vote was being taken on the most serious issue of crime and violence in our beautiful country.
Mr President, I’ve heard my colleague senator indicate that persons have died within the boundaries of the SOE. I would submit, that the question we should be asking is, how many more people would have died if we didn’t have the SOEs in those areas. Nobody said the SOE would eradicate crime but since the SOEs have been discontinued I don’t have to mention what has happened to the murder rate. The barbaric criminals have continued their domestic terrorism. The news headlines speak for themselves. “Criminals kill 9 y-0 in St. James carjacking”. “One Year Old Battling for Life, Father Shot Dead.” Every Jamaican is affected by crime, rich, poor, black, white—every single one of us. How many lives could we have saved if the Opposition had voted for the SOEs?
A stalwart and longstanding leader in the Opposition, Phillip Paulwell warned that the “PNP will pay for SOE Vote”. This was the headline of an article in the Gleaner this week. The Gleaner published an article on Sunday, January 16, 2022, in which the Security Minister Dr Horace Chang outlined elements of the National Consensus on Crime. The article indicated that in August 2020, the Government, Opposition, and key stakeholder representatives agreed to and signed the National Consensus on Crime which supported the use of states of public emergency if certain conditions were satisfied. Based on the article, I had expected the Opposition to provide an official response to the public.
Mr President, I have always been in support of the SOEs and will continue to support it as a crime-fighting strategy both in my capacity as senator and as a private-sector leader. The PSOJ supports the reintroduction of the SOEs with the implementation of a 90-day stipulation for detentions.
I am calling for a reimplementation of the SOEs. If the demonic acts being committed by these monsters is not an emergency, then I don’t know how much more mayhem needs to happen before some of us recognize we are in an emergency.
We have to rely on the information and expertise of the security forces who are saying they need the SOEs to help with their crime-fighting initiatives. The security forces must be given all the resources they need to fight the crime monster. I also support the recent implementation of the Zones of Special Operation.
We can and will overcome the crime monster, but as I said before it will take unity and decisiveness for us to show the criminals that we will not let them destroy our beautiful country and its people.
Mr President, it must be stated again that we must find the fiscal space to prioritise the reform the police service with the passing of the Police Services Act. The police must be organised and resourced to assist with stabilising communities and building social cohesion. In doing so communities can form crime prevention partnerships with the police. Police and community engagement will be instrumental to maintain law and order in our country.
The Firearms Act and the Bail Act are two other important legislation which need to be reformed to bolster the crime-fighting efforts.
Mr President, the social factors relevant to sustainable reduction of crime and violence must also be considered. It requires a whole-of-government, all-of-society approach. We must facilitate a process of behaviour change among our people, in order to reduce the culture of violence that underpins much of the criminal activities in our country.
Too many of our young people in our most vulnerable communities are frustrated with school, are illiterate or semi-illiterate and end up becoming unemployable. These are the young people who are recruited to gangs and also account for 50 per cent of persons murdered in Jamaica. Good parenting and family structures can greatly improve the behavioural outcomes of children, especially the ones who are most vulnerable. Our parents need the support to do what is right for their children.
Mr President, I want to again offer my support for social investment with the social intervention being an outcome of the social investment. These programmes if deployed effectively can improve the social situation of our vulnerable children and mitigate the risk factors associated with criminal activity and violence.
The all-of-government approach under Plan Secure will have clearly defined and measurable outcomes based on empirical data to bring meaningful transformation to vulnerable communities where young men are left behind. This will all be captured within a monitoring, evaluation and learning framework.
If the social investment for transformation is implemented according to this plan of action, then I believe it will create meaningful sustained and impactful social change to tackle the root cause of crime.
The children are our future. The future we create will depend on how well we support our children to become the best young men and women they can be. In order to secure the future today, we need strong families with well-equipped parents. We need positive role models who can provide mentorship and opportunities for developing skills through sports and apprenticeships programmes.
I express my full support for a joined government approach to social investment for transformation.
Mr President, education is important to alleviating crime and poverty and is a tool for economic independence. Having a well-educated and technically trained workforce in this world that is experiencing a digital revolution is the single most important requirement to secure the future of generations to come. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
Mr President, I understand very well the importance of education. My mother instilled this in me from an early age. Jamaica has some of the best teachers you will find anywhere in the world and they stand ready and committed to be agents of social change. They do well here at home and abroad. Ms Keisha Thorpe, a Jamaican-born educator, won the Global Teacher Prize in 2021. I want to salute every teacher and thank them for their hard work, even in the face of challenges brought on by the pandemic. They have been heroes, going above and beyond for their students.
My heart also goes out to all the children who have been affected by this pandemic. As I said earlier, I am really hopeful that they will be able to return to full face-to-face classes soon. In the interim, the Government has been undertaking various initiatives to bridge the educational divide brought on by the pandemic. The Tablets in Schools Programme is a direct response to the needs of students, to have resources to facilitate online learning during the pandemic. By the end of this fiscal year, 125,000 students will receive a tablet. In addition, 25,000 teachers across the island have been trained to utilise the technology in order to facilitate online learning.
I have made a commitment in my personal and professional life to help in any way I can, those children who would be referred to as the “have nots”, to live a better life. An education should be a right and not a privilege. I don’t want to sound boastful, but the company I work for is now sending over 1,000 students, who would not otherwise be able to do so, to school at the secondary and tertiary levels. I mention this to say that the Government cannot educate our children on its own. I know the Private Sector is trying to assist in improving education. I want to use this opportunity to ask that even more private sector companies come on board and invest more in education. In my mind education is the real solution to our problems including crime.
Mr President, we face challenges as a country, but we will overcome. Regardless of political affiliation, colour, social status, I believe that every well-thinking Jamaican wants a safer, productive Jamaica we all can be proud of. So, in the words of Sir Alexander Bustamante- “Let us resolve to work together under the law to build a Jamaica which will last and of which we and the generations to follow may be proud.”