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In this Budget Debate 2014-2015, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller gave a marathon address to Parliament.  Fidel Castro in his heyday was famous for giving speeches that went on ad infinitum.  Michael Manley was known as a great orator and also on the occasion of the Budget, was very much capable of an address that ran for hours.

Surprisingly, Portia Simpson Miller who is not fond of holding press conferences, her far-reaching presentation received very little attention in the Jamaica Observer or the Daily Gleaner.  Both dailies seem to spend more time quoting the Shadow Minister of Finance, Audley Shaw.  The daily newspapers have their favorites and Simpson Miller was never a favorite.

Irrespective of what develops under her watch, there is a segment of the Jamaican populace who will always be dismissive of the democratically elected Prime Minister.  She is unquestionably a fascinating historical figure who is very much loved and adored by the grassroots populace of Jamaica.  No one can question her commitment to the poor. For the years that she has been at the helm of the Jamaican ship of state, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller has developed quite a sophisticated understanding of the challenges facing Jamaica and the complexities of the development process.

At long last, the political class now recognizes that more borrowing is counter-productive and the appetite to spend has to be curbed.  The Budget for 2014-2015 is (J)$540 billion, $20 billion less than a few years ago.  The Prime Minister, despite the pressures from the International Monetary Fund, has insulated the vulnerable from the contracting budget. PATH has not had a reduction in its budget and school lunches for poor kids have been preserved.

What appears to be a new twist in Portia Simpson Miller’s presentation is the emphasis on public/private partnerships and the necessity for inter-ministerial linkages.  To expand the export sector, there has to be cooperation linking JAMPRO, the Jamaica Exporters Association and the Jamaica Manufacturing Association.

In her speech, the Prime Minister is clear regarding the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in stimulating growth and development.  The educational system must produce graduates who can master these fields and compete on the global market.

It is somewhat gratifying to see the expansion of access in the tertiary educational system and the Prime Minister stated that in ten years there has been an increase in tertiary education from 21 percent to 29 percent.  The Mona Campus with a huge gender imbalance illustrates the cultural malaise of young men in Jamaica.

The Prime Minister lauds the expansion of education in Jamaica but as is customary with Budget Speeches, they are insufficiently analytical. The educational outcomes of non-traditional high schools are appalling and there is much improvement and pedagogical interventions needed to ensure that those who begin the high school exercise are around to complete the learning experience.

The Prime Minister highlights the significance of the growing wellness industry in Jamaica where farmers are planting indigenous crops and producing them for medicinal purposes.  There is a huge export market to exploit in the developed world as these natural herbs can contribute to one’s health wellbeing.

There has been a marked increase in agricultural production in the last year and government is in the process of establishing a couple agricultural parks aimed at reducing the country’s dependence on imported foods.

Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller has always taken a keen interest in the National Housing Trust that was initiated by her mentor, Michael Manley in the 1970s.  From the inception of the NHT, 173,000 mortgages and/or construction of houses have been created.  The surplus that will be generated this year will be used to shore up infirmaries, provide intervention to street people and the homeless.  The NHT as part of the IMF agreement has a five year commitment to contribute to reducing the debt.

Budget speeches provide great insight into how government allocates resources.  There is the tendency to string together the many projects that will come on stream during the fiscal year but these presentations are not helpful in providing empirical data as to where the society is at this juncture. There is the need for data assessing the extent of income inequality and the changes taking place in the family.

Debates in a democratic society should be closely watched by the electorate.  I was in Jamaica attending a conference during the heights of the budget debate but the populace paid very little attention to the critical issues raised in the parliamentary discourse. People were fiercely opposed to the withdrawal tax on deposits and Portia Simpson Miller showing her political instincts has had Dr. Peter Phillips, the Minister of Finance, rescind the tax and find badly-needed revenues elsewhere.

The Prime Minister’s speech covered the “waterfront”.  Either a budget speech or some other occasion, she needs to address in more analytical ways the burning issues that concerns her the most such as the state of families and the wholesomeness of communities. At the close of the Budget Debate these challenges do not evaporate.  There is a need for the various sectors of civil society to continue the fine-tuning of the dialogue.  There is a robust talk radio tradition but there needs to be an ongoing discourse of an empirical nature so that in the Prime Minister’s words, “We know where we are going”.

Dr. Basil Wilson