The familiar gusto is still clearly there, but the difference these days with two-time Finance Minister Audley Shaw is the almost religious zeal with which he pumps out the figures… and the arguments in favour of the coming prosperity and the new Jamaica that the Andrew Holness Government has promised.
Shaw wants his audience to believe it, this ‘commitment’ which has become, of late, a common word in all speeches of ministers and spokespersons. He has taken to cajoling, persuading, even quoting scriptures and philosophical thoughts from people like Buju Banton to make a point. But it is more than that. He evidently believes it himself.
“I believe in moving from poverty to prosperity. But prosperity does not begin in the pocket, it begins in the mind. We have to believe that we can be a prosperous nation,” Shaw argued hard in an interview looking back at the first nine months of the new Administration.
“Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it will achieve,” he quoted Napoleon Hill’s
Think and Grow Rich, saying he himself had not spent enough time articulating the vision or fine-tuning the agenda of all the things he and the Government wanted to achieve for Jamaica.
“If we develop our people and give them the opportunities to build themselves, the prosperity will come. It starts with the way we educate our children in the schools. That is why I am supportive of the policy which says that we must take over the early childhood system. Too many of those schools are run at substandard levels. They are really glorified day-care centres and not basic schools, as they are called.
“So when the children reach six years of age or grade one, many of them are not functionally literate. Many of the young boys now involved in crime dropped out of school at an early age. Every child at six years of age should be functionally literate. The first five years is when the brain is developed.”
Shaw illustrated, using his seven-year-old daughter. “She said to me the other day ‘dad, you are ridiculous’. I said ‘apologise for that’ and her response was ‘Okay, Mr cranky pants’,” the finance minister recounted, unable to conceal the paternal pride.
“Yes, we have sea, rivers, sand, trees and land but the greatest of these is our people. We have to begin there. Beyond that we have to go for the promotional thrust for the investments that will create the opportunities for our entrepreneurs. “We have made it too difficult to do business in Jamaica and that is why so many people try to get around the system. Transferring property, to cite one example, the system is too cumbersome. That encourages delays, delays in construction compromises job creation.
“We need a country that educates our people properly from the earliest stages and then a Government that uses its power to continually open up opportunities for Jamaicans to do for themselves. That is the only basis on which we are going to create wealth.”
Shaw found it significant that since 1944 — Adult Suffrage —there have been 14 finance ministers with only four of them from his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and 10 from the People’s National Party (PNP). Since 1962 — Independence — there had been three JLP finance ministers — Donald Sangster, Edward Seaga and himself.
“I have served under two PMs and that, for me, means that my attitude has to be that every day counts,” Shaw said.
Looking back at his first term, 2007-2011, he noted that he was the finance minister during the worst economic crisis in recent memory, but he was proud of the fact that he had handed over an economy that was growing; the exchange rate had been stable for two years at $86 to US$1 and inflation was down to five or six per cent.
He had established the Junior stock exchange where, instead of borrowing at high costs, people had incentive to go to raise equity on the junior market. That had been so successful that “we have passed a law to re-establish it”.
“When I visited Lasco at White Marl, St Catherine, and saw the expansion taking place there, imagine my pride. The iCool brand came directly out of the Junior Stock Exchange. Employment tripled; they are exporting to the Caribbean, United States and Canada. Twenty containers of iCool went to Trinidad and Tobago a few weeks ago.
“There are also Jamaica Teas, Knutsford Express and Honey Bun, to name a few who benefited from the junior market. Blue Power is expanding rapidly, exporting to the Caribbean and now looking to third-country markets. We want to see more companies choosing equity over debt financing,” Shaw said.
Shaw abolished the special consumption tax on rum, the raw material used by Tortuga rum cakes, thereby bringing back the production, which had fled Jamaica, and thus creating 60 jobs and producing two million pounds of the cakes, mostly for exports.
Under his tenure, there had also been a sharp reduction in interest rates in mortgages, from around 20 per cent when he entered to about nine per cent when he left, as well as the abolishment of transfer taxes from one institution to another, increasing loan portability and driving down interest rates.
“We strongly reengaged the multilaterals at a time when the previous Government was borrowing at rates between 11 and 12 per cent. By 2012 we had borrowed US$600 million, most between two and three per cent,” the finance minister recalled.
Economy grew by two per cent
On economic performance in his current tenure, Shaw said that at the macro level the economy had grown by 2.3 per cent, led by agriculture which had grown by 2.9 per cent. For sugar, which was under threat, he had collaborated with Agriculture Minister Karl Samuda to keep Long Pond and Monymusk sugar factories open after Chinese owners, Complant pulled out, and saw growth in output.
“The new model being pursued is to have small and medium-sized Jamaican farmers grow the cane and the Government to provide a management system for the factories, preparatory to divestment,” he said.
Shaw pointed to foreign exchange reserves of over US$3 billion, noting that the exchange rate had stabilised over the past two months, due in part to “better communication with the market”.
“Interest rates continue to trend down and inflation year to year (November to November) is 1.7 per cent. We have also added over 40,000 jobs in the economy,” he said.
Shaw outlined elements of the next wave: a new transport hub similar to the one in Half-Way Tree, St Andrew, will be set up in Portmore, across from the main shopping mall, to replace the “ramshackle” transport system that he described as unacceptable. It will also feature gardens with trees and flowers, as well as a park and ride facility enabling motorists to drive to the hub and hop on a bus to the city.
Over the next three years, 10,000 hotel rooms will be added, representing a 30 per cent hike in room capacity. More linkages will be created between tourism and other sectors, with emphasis on local farmers and producers supplying food and other local products, to reduce the over-reliance by hotels on imports.
The finance minister said that the political slogan “Put people first” could mean something if the conditions and opportunities for prosperity are improved. He said popular singer Buju Banton had highlighted the fact that “opportunity in Jamaica is a scarce, scarce commodity”.
The Jamaican people have an abundance of talent, as demonstrated when they go to live and work overseas. He said: “If they can do it abroad, they can do it here at home.”
Shaw, in an indication that the leadership rivalry between him and party leader Holness is now in the distant past, was full of praise for the prime minister and the growth strategy he had articulated, saying: “He is working hard and providing the leadership and oversight necessary to take us forward.”
He acknowledged that crime had to be dealt with, mentioning plans to acquire three deep-sea vessels to support the army in patrolling the Jamaican coast-line and to provide the police force with more used vehicles to increase mobility. But Shaw cautioned that fighting crime was not only about cars.
“We have to start by dealing with the minds of our people. We have to draw on the power of the positive in our people. I do believe that Jamaica’s best days are ahead but we need a dose of good governance.”
Turning his gaze to the Opposition PNP’s role, Shaw said it was not too late for them to join the effort to achieve prosperity for the country, if they put the interest of the people first.
“Good governance demands a strong and vibrant Parliament. It is a time for all of us to leave arrogance at the door and do the best we can for the people. We have a lot of work to do in a short time, but with God’s help we’ll do it.”
Quoting Isaiah 58:12, he said: “And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in,” “We have plenty breaches and paths to restore,” he concluded.
“The book of Job (Chapter 14:7) tells us ‘that there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease’. The tree of Jamaica will sprout again.”