It has been my practice while in office to address you at the beginning of each new year so as to review the state of affairs of the international community of which we are a member and to give you an assessment of the state of affairs in our country and our prospects for the year ahead.
The dark clouds which hung over the world at the end of last year did not dissipate with the turning of the calendar. The attacks in Mumbai, India, were a rude reminder that we still face the worldwide threat of terrorism and that we must remain vigilant.
The unsettled state of affairs in the Middle East and Central Asia continues to present perhaps the greatest challenge to the maintenance of peace and stability in international affairs.
The tension between Israelis and Palestinians that has existed for half a century erupted once more into open conflict with tragic consequences, including the death and maiming of hundreds of innocents and terrible destruction of property in Gaza.
Sectarian violence continues to disrupt life in Iraq. The war in Afghanistan and along the Pakistan border has intensified as the militant religious fundamentalists have stepped up their resistance.
The meltdown in the United States that rocked the foundations of the global economic order in 2008 continues to reverberate throughout the world with profound negative impact on business, trade and employment.
On January 20th, a new administration took over the reins of power in the United States as Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President and the first American of African descent to ascend to that high office.
Having regard to the tragic history of slavery in the New World, this was indeed a moment of great significance and tens of thousands of Bahamians joined millions around the world in celebrating this hopeful new beginning.
The Government of The Bahamas looks forward to our continued excellent relations with our American friends and we wish the new President and his administration great success as they move to deal with a multitude of challenges.
Foremost among those challenges, and of greatest concern to citizens of The Bahamas and the United States, is the re-ordering of international financial affairs and the recovery of the U.S. and the world economy.
The economies of the industrialized countries of North America and Western Europe moved into recession last year with serious consequences for the world and especially for small developing countries such as ours.
Oil prices, which raced to a record high of $150 per barrel last summer, have dropped to as low as $35 per barrel.
Some countries that were recently rolling in a flood of oil revenues are now feeling the bite of the global economic downturn. And those of us who were obliged to endure dramatic increases in energy and other commodity costs now look forward to a gradual reduction in the cost of living.
The meteoric rise of the price of oil, followed by a sharp drop, is an important indication of the all-encompassing nature of the crisis now impacting just about all economic sectors and activities, not just the businesses in which we are engaged.
Recent surveys reveal that one in five employed persons in the United States fear losing their jobs this year. This uncertainty continues to weaken consumer confidence in the U.S. with negative consequences for our tourism and hence our economy by way of employment, business performance and government revenue.
The overwhelming majority of our tourists come from the United States and tourism accounts for more than 50% of the activity in our national economy. Tourism drives other sectors of our economy, including construction, and represents a market with significant growth potential for fisheries, agriculture, food processing and light manufacturing.
I make these observations to underline the necessity for us to better position ourselves to mitigate the effects of events which are beyond our control. Now is the time for us to delve deep into our tradition of overcoming adversity and of finding special reserves of strength and courage.
We believe the Bahamian economy, along with the global economy, will rebound and that the promise of better times for us and for future generations of Bahamians will be realized.
Unfortunately, neither I nor any other leader can accurately predict how deep and for how long the present global economic crisis will last.
How we act now, however, will help to determine how prepared we will be to take full advantage of the economic upturn when it happens. And, God willing, there will be a restoration of our economic fortunes.
My Fellow Bahamians,
I know that many of you are deeply concerned. Some of you have had your employment terminated, and others fear the loss of employment if the economy does not rebound quickly. Some of you face the possible loss of your homes.
Others fear the inability to continue to meet expected obligations such as school tuition payments, particularly college tuition, and health care and medical costs. Indeed, for some of you, simply keeping the lights on is a challenge.
While it is logical to assume that our economic performance will be restrained during this year, I believe we can take some encouragement from the resilience demonstrated in the economy during 2008 despite the depth of the economic adversity in the global background.
As expected, we are experiencing weakness in revenue performance for the fiscal year 2008/09. So far, however, that performance is keeping pace with the performance of the previous fiscal period, which is remarkable.
Foreign direct investment through September 2008 recorded an increase of $83.3 million or 7.3 per cent above the corresponding period of the previous year, and this firmness in investment inflow appears to be continuing.
As a consequence of this, and the moderation in credit expansion, our international reserves position recorded an increase of $108.8 million at the end of 2008 which compares with a decrease of $45.6 million at the end of the previous year.
Furthermore, despite a significant spike in commodity prices during the year, inflation on a year-on-year basis at the end of November, posted a moderate 4.3 per cent or just 1.8 percentage points above the level of a year earlier.
We are fortunate that our macroeconomic fundamentals and especially our fiscal targets permit us some flexibility in confronting the economic crisis.
In particular, our level of national debt to GDP of 42% and our level of foreign currency debt to GDP of less than 10% permit us to put in place a stimulus package to assist in softening the impact of the crisis without endangering our national economic welfare and passing on to future generations an unsustainable debt burden.
Nevertheless, it is very important that we adopt prudent management of our financial affairs. This is the time to establish priorities with regard to household and personal expenditures.
This is not a time for excessive discretionary spending; rather, this is a time for us to remember the saying, “Don’t hang your hat higher than you can reach.”
In this regard, I advise that the current lower price for oil, and consequently for other forms of energy, should not cause us to let down our guard. The price may skyrocket again when overall economic recovery is achieved, or if and when the oil producers decide to drive up the price by reducing production.
We should continue to conserve energy in areas such as household usage and transportation and to go forward with plans for the permanent reduction of consumption of fossil fuels.
Protecting home-ownership is critical. Where the loss of income is straining your capacity to meet monthly mortgage payments, I urge you to discuss your situation with your bank as early as is possible.
Continue to pay whatever sums you are able toward meeting your mortgage obligation. The banks have all indicated their preparedness to work with mortgage clients who are adversely impacted by this economic downturn. Take them up on their pledges.
For those with children attending the College of The Bahamas, I offer the assurance that students will not be prevented from continuing if they are unable to make timely payment of their tuition because of difficulties arising from the current economic recession. In such cases, appropriate arrangements will be put in place to defer and reschedule tuition payments.
Protecting jobs is a priority for the Government. Each year new job opportunities must become available for school leavers, so we are especially concerned to ensure opportunities for them to be gainfully employed. Hence, our disappointment was acute when a number of projects, which we had anticipated moving forward during the past year, stalled.
These include the Ritz Carlton project on Rose Island; Ginn at West End, Grand Bahama; the former Royal Oasis property in Freeport, Grand Bahama; Royal Island Resort off North Eleuthera; the Aman Resort at Norman’s Cay, Exuma; the sale and redevelopment of the Walker’s Cay Resort in the Abacos; Kerzner International’s second Marina Village and Time Share Resort at Hurricane Hole, and the Bahamar Project in Cable Beach. All have been adversely impacted by the current financial crisis.
I should point out that each of these developments was being undertaken by reputable developers with sound financial credentials and yet they have seen their financial capacity and capability diminished by the current circumstances. This is indicative of the current economic global downturn.
Notwithstanding these disappointments, we are doing all within our power to cause new jobs to be created and to preserve existing jobs. By stepping up to the plate and attaining higher levels of efficiency and productivity, all of us can maximize the opportunities available in our country.
We must never lose sight of the reality that as the world’s economy shrinks, competition increases. We must therefore place ourselves at the forefront of the drive for efficiency and productivity if we wish to achieve and maintain global competitiveness.
Each of us has a role to play in this. In the tourism sector in particular we must make a special effort to give good, friendly service to our guests. Those of us who are not directly involved in tourism can also play our part by showing utmost courtesy and helpfulness to visitors with whom we come into contact.
My Fellow Bahamians,
Even while statistics for 2008 reflect a decrease in new building applications by just under 7%, the number of approvals granted increased by just over 3% with a value of $656.6 million, an increase of 32.7% over the previous year.
Coupled with our public sector infrastructure stimulus programme, a number of construction projects will create new employment and business opportunities in the economy and thereby mitigate some of the negative experiences of 2008.
My Fellow Bahamians,
While our financial services sector continues to offer rewarding employment, new job creation in the sector – in banking, insurance and securities – will probably remain subdued in the foreseeable future.
The Government will continue to partner with private sector practitioners to ensure that we remain competitive and compliant with international best practices, thereby safeguarding this second pillar of our economy. In this regard, I was pleased to learn of two forward-looking initiatives of The Bahamas Financial Services Board.
The first is the upcoming introduction of a mentoring programme which has as its goal providing practical training to school leavers interested in pursuing careers in the financial services sector.
The second is the launch of a website on which Bahamian professionals will be able to post their curricula vitae (or CVs) and signal to financial institutions operating in The Bahamas their qualifications, availability and interest in employment in this sector.
This new sector-specific website complements a website already launched by the Department of Labour which seeks to provide a similar service in the wider economy.
My Fellow Bahamians,
Our physical environment is being improved. The Department of Environmental Health commenced, in early December, a stepped-up programme to clean up and maintain our general environment in New Providence. Some 267 persons and 116 small contractors were engaged to undertake this programme.
Our goal is to clean up Bay Street and the downtown area and further to set up an improved programme for litter control, replacement of bins, regular street sweeping, removal of silt and sand, verge creation and maintenance, park rejuvenation, derelict vehicle removal, removal of invasive plant species, and the planting of native shrubs and trees.
The first phase of a general clean-up of our environment placed emphasis on the main tourism routes such as Bay Street East and West. Already the improvements have been noticed and commented on by Bahamians and visitors.
Similar clean-up exercises will be undertaken in the Family Islands in conjunction with local government authorities.
I take this opportunity to express my satisfaction at the response by owners and operators of businesses in our City Centre who are already accessing concessions available under the City of Nassau Revitalization Act, enacted last summer, to commence upgrade and refurbishment of their businesses.
Approvals have been granted for nine projects worth a capital investment of some $21 million. The projects under this Act will assist in creating and maintaining jobs in the construction and retail sectors.
I also remind that under the Family Islands Development Encouragement Act, similar customs duty concessions are available on imports for new construction or for redevelopment and refurbishment projects for both residential and commercial purposes in Andros, Cat Island, San Salvador, Rum Cay, Long Island, Crooked Island, Long Cay, Acklins, Ragged Island and Cays, Mayaguana, Inagua, Sweeting’s Cay and Water Cay (Grand Bahama); Grand Cay and Moores Island (Abaco); and Current Island (Eleuthera).
We are in an increasingly competitive market, hence we must not rest on our oars. We must continually strive to meet expectations for higher standards. It cannot be the responsibility of business owners alone. We all have a role to play in giving better stewardship of our environment, even if it is simply picking up a piece of litter.
My Fellow Bahamians,
As you are aware, the Government has determined to accelerate a number of infrastructure projects providing stimulus to job creation and thereby cushioning the effect of job losses in other parts of our economy.
The projects to be implemented are not new. Rather, they form part of the Government’s planned response to the need to address the inadequate infrastructure which exists around our country.
Works will include improvement of roads, docks and airports; expansion of school and community recreational facilities, and construction or refurbishment of government offices.
For the vast majority of our people who live in New Providence, traffic congestion has continued to be a source of extreme frustration. In our Family Islands many believe, and rightly so, that inadequate roads and other infrastructure continue to hamper their suitability for investment and development.
In this regard, you will be aware of the re-launched $130 million New Providence Road Enhancement Project. That work is to coincide with other major road works being undertaken on a number of Family Islands: in Eleuthera, Harbour Island, Current and Current Island. And we expect to commence new road construction works in North Abaco, North Eleuthera and Acklins this year.
The Ministry of Housing has already announced its acceleration of the Government’s Housing and Subdivision Development Programme in New Providence, Grand Bahama, Abaco and Exuma.
Among other important infrastructure works to be commenced this year are:
— The Downtown Nassau (Bay Street and Prince George Wharf) redevelopment;
— The construction of the new Straw Market;
— The construction of three new government office complexes in New Providence, Grand Bahama and Abaco;
— The completion of the new school in Oakes Field;
— The construction of the new Registrar General’s office complex on Market Street;
— The completion of the Magistrate’s Court Complex on Meeting Street;
— The construction of the new National Stadium at the Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre, a gift from the Government of the People’s Republic of China,
— The construction and reconstruction of sea and airports in some Family Islands; and
— The completion of the Government Office building next to the Ministry of Works on JFK Drive.
My Fellow Bahamians,
I recently reported to Parliament on some of the interventions we have taken to assist persons whose circumstances have been adversely affected in recent months.
The Government will keep the situation under close scrutiny to determine whether and when additional interventions may be warranted.
While the Government is doing all that it can to help soften the impact on our most vulnerable citizens, we must remember that our resources are limited.
Therefore, I call on all Bahamians who are well placed to lend a helping hand to friends, relatives and neighbours who have been suddenly confronted with job loss or drastically reduced income, to do so – generously and cheerfully.
My Fellow Bahamians,
It is clear that our economy, heavily dependent on tourism and financial services, is extremely vulnerable to developments internationally.
Indeed, while acknowledging the vulnerability of our dependence on the international environment we also recognize that a country the size of The Bahamas could not have achieved our high level of income without such external exposure.
Still, as a newspaper editorial recently noted, almost everything we produce in our economy is exported; and conversely, virtually all of what is consumed is imported.
We believe, therefore, that there are untapped opportunities in our economy that can serve as a basis for the expansion of private enterprise. It makes good economic sense for us to create and expand internal markets for local products. The importance of this becomes clearer in these economic circumstances.
In that vein I renew the call for us to do a better job at exploiting the potential for linkages between our agricultural, fisheries, and light manufacturing sectors with the tourism sector.
I draw attention to the upcoming Agricultural Expo being staged at the Gladstone Road Agricultural Research Centre in February which has as its theme, “Improving Food Security”.
This period of economic slow-down provides an excellent opportunity for our businesses to forge new and reliable relationships here at home; for example, between restaurateur and retail merchant, between agriculturist and fisherman and food and beverage manager, between straw vendor and craft producer, and between light manufacturer and hotel operator.
My Fellow Bahamians,
I am pleased to report that our Ship Registry and International Shipping Sector continue to provide an important element in the diversification of the Bahamian economy.
The Bahamas Ship Registry is today the third largest in the world having surpassed the 50 million gross tonnage mark. This industry is supported by our very active participation in the affairs of the International Maritime Organization where we serve on the Council having been most recently elected in November, 2007.
At home, the Freeport Harbour Company informs that although the decrease in export trade from Asia and Western Europe to the United States has reduced the volume of containers being off-loaded at their facilities, resulting in some staff layoffs in December, plans for the construction of Phase V of the Container Transshipment Facility have not been cancelled.
A positive development for the Company has been the decision by international shipping companies to use the Freeport facilities to store cargo vessels that have been withdrawn from service due to the lack of demand to await the turnaround in the world economy.
We are also encouraged by the launch of a third dry dock by the Grand Bahama Shipyard. The dock which has already entered into operation is to be officially commissioned next month. The expansion of this important maritime business bodes well for the strengthening of the Grand Bahama economy in sectors unrelated to tourism.
My Fellow Bahamians,
When people have money and feel that their jobs are safe they will travel. In anticipation, we are working to reposition our tourism product to meet the increasingly demanding expectations of modern travellers and to prepare for future tourism growth when the economy in North America rebounds.
In that regard, visitors have, in recent times, observed and reported on improvements in the friendliness of our people and quality of our service.
The Ministry of Tourism, working with the tourism private sector, is moving forward with a series of schemes to capitalize on the advantage of The Bahamas’ proximity to North America.
The objectives are to reduce air fares; lower, and where possible, eliminate airport costs inclusive of customs and immigration overtime charges; and increase airlift, including a strategy to add new gateways in the United States taking advantage of U.S. immigration and customs pre-clearance facilities in New Providence and Grand Bahama.
The Ministry of Tourism’s latest round of advertising in the U.S. commenced on January 12th in our major markets across the eastern seaboard from Boston to Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Advertisements will appear on all the major networks as well as many cable stations including CNN and Bravo. These will continue into June.
In addition, other special promotions have been arranged with U.S. networks to keep The Bahamas in the forefront during prime time programming in key markets.
And, as reports indicate that more than 50% of all bookings to The Bahamas are made on-line, special emphasis has been placed on the continued improvement of our web page — www.bahamas.com. Additionally, The Bahamas is being heavily advertised online on a variety of websites.
We have long known that conference business is a primary money maker for our destination. We are pleased therefore that two important international conferences will be held in The Bahamas this year.
They are the Commonwealth Local Government Conference which will take place in Freeport, Grand Bahama, in May; and the International Federation of Football Associations (FIFA) 59th Congress at the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island, also beginning in May.
The latter conference is particularly important not only for the direct infusion of millions of dollars into our hotel and tourism sector but for the considerable advertisement that will result from the presence of as many as 250 representatives from the international print and electronic media.
I take this opportunity to reiterate my appreciation to our hotel partners for the manner in which they have handled layoffs and their sensitivity in minimizing their impact and even the occurrence of layoffs. Balancing the human element and business bottom lines is never an easy task.
My Fellow Bahamians,
One of the major obstacles to the expansion of business in any economy is the cost of doing business. And so it is an opportune time to renew our focus on improving efficiencies by reducing bureaucracy and red tape and creating transparency in the economy through more effective use of technology.
This will expedite the delivery of service and otherwise reduce the cost of doing business. This applies to both our public and private sectors.
In this regard, the Government looks forward in the weeks ahead to the launch of the much-anticipated Automated Clearing House system. This will require banks to credit and debit client accounts for the dollar value of cheques issued with effect from the date of issuance and deposit.
The introduction of this system, long used in developed economies, will increase transparency in our financial system and remove the ability for manipulation of money exchange to the disadvantage of clients.
In its efforts to modernize the economy, the Department of Labour is joining with Labour Unions to offer new programmes to retrain individuals who have lost their jobs so that they are able to secure employment elsewhere, or to become entrepreneurs if they so desire.
My Fellow Bahamians,
We expect that, notwithstanding the global economic downturn, we will be able to proceed to complete the privatization of The Bahamas Telecommunications Company this year.
A legislative package is scheduled to be brought to Parliament before the end of March that will enable implementation of a new, appropriately resourced competitive regime for the operation of communications services within The Bahamas.
And we are continuing initiatives to reduce the cumbersome application processes for permits, licences and registration.
The Government launched a pilot Public Service Improvement Programme in six public agencies in May of 2008 in fulfillment of a commitment to advance the pace of modernization in the Public Service. The first phase of the programme was completed in December 2008.
The agencies concerned are:
The Department of Public Service
The Registrar General’s Office
The Building Control Division
The Road Traffic Department
The Department of Physical Planning, and
The Passport Office.
All of these agencies have been assessed by the public and, not surprisingly, determined to be in urgent need of action to correct deficiencies in the delivery of services to the public.
Each Department has since been required to enunciate a vision for service delivery, form Service Improvement Teams and identify vision priorities. As this project continues this year, you are encouraged to let us know whether we are achieving the improved levels of service you deserve.
My Fellow Bahamians,
It is in the nature of human institutions that they must be constantly under review to insure that they are functioning in accordance with their highest values and mandates. This is certainly true of public institutions that are susceptible to negative influences, even the entrenchment of bad habits.
It is the intention of my Government to pursue with utmost vigour and determination our Trust Agenda for the strengthening of all branches, agencies and departments of The Bahamas Government and to initiate reforms where necessary.
We fully intend to work towards a new culture of excellence in the service of the Bahamian people, a culture of ethical conduct on the part of those who serve, a culture that is hostile to slackness and corrupt practices.
We expect that some elements of this process will be painful and we fully expect to be criticized. We may even have to pay a political price.
But we believe that we have a duty to position our country more securely on it constitutional foundations of democratic government; equal access to the rights, privileges and protections which citizenship bestows; and the rule of law.
The Bahamian people deserve no less than a country with a modern, responsive public service, a country that is equipped to function in an increasingly competitive world, a country that is stable, a country that can hold its head high as a respected member of the international community.
My Fellow Bahamians,
Unacceptably high crime rates continue to disturb our communities and so it is not surprising that addressing the crime issue, including reducing the fear of crime, remain a priority of the Government.
While 2008 marked the first decrease in the incidence of murder since 2004, the police also recorded a decrease in the number of murder cases solved. And, once again, last year our Family Islands were not spared.
While most murders occurred in New Providence followed by Grand Bahama, smaller communities on Abaco, Exuma and Cat Island also recorded murders — Abaco for the first time in two years.
The causes of crime are complex and require intervention on many fronts. The fight against crime must therefore be multifaceted and cannot be left to the police alone.
We must agree in our daily lives not to give aid or protection to persons who choose to live outside the law. And we must act responsibly to remove ourselves from dangerous situations whenever possible and to secure and protect our property and our places of business so as to make them less attractive to criminals.
It cannot be overstated that support for our police is essential if we are to reduce incidents of crime and achieve a higher rate of crime resolution in our communities. It must not be lost on us that the detection and resolution of crime – that is bringing criminals to justice — is a most effective deterrent to future crime.
Of course, a properly trained, equipped and managed police force is fundamental to fighting crime.
As early as 1999, the Government of The Bahamas commissioned a strategic review of the Royal Bahamas Police Force to guide the phased modernization of its management which is meant to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of policing. The implementation of the recommendations of that review has not been as speedily addressed as it should have been.
Still, considerable progress is being achieved in better equipping our police and by providing them access to sophisticated state-of-the-art technology for the detection of crime.
Also, improved and increased training locally, and exposure to modern policing methods internationally, continues to be afforded to members of the Force.
This month a new, streamlined organizational structure has been implemented in the Police Force. The new structure is designed to reduce bureaucracy and provide an improved framework in which the Force can more readily achieve and maintain the highest standards of policing.
Just recently, a Bill for a new Police Act was introduced in the House of Assembly. This new legislation, when enacted, will provide the legislative support for a modern and efficient Police Force.
It is expected that this more responsive and efficient structure will assist in building public confidence in the Police Force, and hence in reducing the fear of crime.
Along with the apprehension of criminals by the police, efforts will continue toward improving the legal and court system so that persons charged before our courts are tried in a reasonable time.
The new Magistrates Court Complex on South Street, New Providence, will house 12 Magistrates’ courts. It is expected that these improved facilities, situated in one complex, will reduce much of the delays in the operations of the Magistrates’ courts.
In addition the Supreme Court building in downtown Nassau will be refurbished to improve the conditions under which judges, lawyers and support personnel work. Once the refurbishments are completed, we expect that at least three criminal courts, instead of two, will be operational year round in New Providence together with another in Freeport, Grand Bahama. I encourage you to assist the work of the courts by serving as jurors and attending court when required to do so.
We are aware of the need for additional experienced judges and magistrates. The vacancies that exist on the Court of Appeal will be filled. We have already identified potential justices for the Court of Appeal and have begun the process of filling those positions.
There is an urgent need for Stipendiary and Circuit Magistrates to serve the Family Islands in the Central and Southern Bahamas. Resources will be made available to facilitate the appointments of additional judges and magistrates, legal and support staff to fill all vacant posts in the legal and judicial service.
Respect for the law and law enforcement must also be extended to other branches of the uniformed services — the Royal Bahamas Defence Force, the Immigration Department and the Customs Department.
The Defence Force has been provided with additional sea and air crafts to improve their ability and capacity to combat illegal migration and poaching.
You will be aware that we are streamlining and modernizing the management of our Immigration and Customs Departments, facilitating the advancement of young, highly motivated officers to leadership of these critically important agencies of the Government.
We seek to limit the extent to which our processes and procedures provide for wide discretionary powers that have, in the past, permitted abuses in the system.
It is our view that those with a legitimate claim to status in our country should not be frustrated in the enjoyment of that status because of anachronistic processes in the public service.
Similarly, it is unacceptable that delays in the processing of work permits should be permitted to obstruct the smooth functioning of our economy.
We are also giving renewed and sustained attention to policing and enforcing our immigration laws. It is our intention to measurably reduce the number of illegal immigrants in our workforce and hence in our country, and to improve border controls so as to reduce the number of individuals able to evade detection on entering the country.
The new senior management team recently deployed to the Department of Immigration has been directed to implement improvements to all procedures and processes bearing on the timely consideration and response to applicants for nationality, residency status and work permits.
We are confident that, moving forward, and particularly following the introduction of tamper-resistant immigration permits and certificates, the opportunities for abuse in the system will be brought to an irreducible minimum.
I hasten to add that if we are to achieve the desired new levels of efficiency in the operation of the Department of Immigration we will require the cooperation and support of each and every Bahamian in respecting and complying with the immigration laws of our country.
The modernization of our Customs Department has been in progress for some 10 years. You will recall that in the 2008/09 Budget exercise a new Tariff and Excise Tax regime was introduced.
The simplification and modernization of the customs tariff regime is meant to reduce discretion in the application of duty rates to imports and to improve the ability of customs officers to accurately and efficiently attach the correct duty to imported items and hence maximize the collection of government revenue.
Additionally, modern management systems are being introduced in the Department. We expect, with the implementation of and adherence to a shift system, that we will be able to considerably reduce, if not eliminate, the high overtime costs incurred annually by the Department.
The transfer of commercial shipping from three locations in the heart of downtown Nassau to one centralized location at Arawak Cay is expected to produce increased efficiencies in the deployment of staff, including the realization of an effective shift system.
To the extent that the shift system is able to reduce overtime charges now transferred to freight shippers, this can potentially reduce the cost of products imported for resale to Bahamians.
Where such extra customs costs accrue on the bottom lines of airlines, cruise lines and hotel operators, they increase the cost of our tourism product, negatively impacting our competitiveness internationally.
Any reduction in such overtime charges will assist in reducing the cost of our tourism product and thereby contribute to the improved competitiveness of our destinations — an important objective in these difficult economic times.
My Fellow Bahamians,
Education remains the key to future progress. We continue to advance improvements in our education system though we cannot be satisfied with our achievements thus far. The slow improvement in the overall level of achievement of students leaving high school dictates that our efforts be strengthened.
In acknowledging the deficiencies in the system and in its products, I do not wish to disparage either the good and dedicated service of countless teachers and other educators in both public and private education systems nor the achievement of so many of our young people who, having completed their secondary education, move on to excel and provide leadership in wide-ranging areas both at home and abroad.
The critical importance of a good education to the welfare of our nation cannot be over-emphasized. An educated and trained work force provides an important basis from which to strengthen and expand the economy, which in turn grows employment, leads to improved incomes and advances the standard of living.
Last year the Ministry of Education implemented the planned School Improvement Programmes which placed renewed focus on core subjects throughout the school system from kindergarten to 12th grade. It is expected that this new emphasis on the core will result in a gradual improvement in the achievement of our young people in the years ahead.
The Ministry’s expanded magnet programmes in technical and career education is critically important if we are to meet the demand in the market for better skilled graduates able to assume and perform adequately at entry level positions in their organizations.
And, following a hiatus of five years in the construction of schools, the new Anatol Rodgers Junior High School in Southwestern New Providence and the new Junior High School in Freeport, Grand Bahama, were completed. Students were able to commence classes at the new schools in October of last year.
My Fellow Bahamians,
“The health of the nation is the wealth of the nation” is a well-worn adage, but it is equally true today as when first conceived. Accordingly, improving the health infrastructure of our country and thereby facilitating and promoting a healthy population remain top priorities for the Government.
We are convinced that achieving a more healthy population requires targeted attention on a number of fronts simultaneously. Hence, the continued and expanded programmes of the Ministry of Health to promote healthy lifestyles, to maintain and sustain gains achieved in infant and child immunization, infant and maternal health, and to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Initiatives remain in place to continue the upgrade of facilities on which Bahamians must rely for their health care needs. I was pleased earlier this month to participate in the inauguration of the new Oncology Centre at the Princess Margaret Hospital, the fulfillment of a promise to improve the care of cancer patients by expanding programmes for early detection and treatment.
As I announced on that occasion, I am delighted to confirm that we have begun the process for the planning and construction of a new and improved institution as a replacement for the Princess Margaret Hospital.
And, we continue making progress toward the introduction of a programme making prescription drugs for the treatment of certain chronic conditions available to elderly patients from participating licensed pharmacies.
In due course, we will introduce a prescription drug benefit which will be universally available for specified chronic and catastrophic illnesses. It is our intention and purpose to provide to all our citizens the best health care we can afford.
My Fellow Bahamians,
Overall, we believe that 2009 is likely to be a difficult year. The Government will continue to keep developments in the global economy under close scrutiny as regards their current impact and potential further impact upon our economy in the months ahead.
The prudent fiscal administration of our country’s finances means that the Government is able to intervene to assist and to reduce the impacts of the downturn of the economy without jeopardizing our long term economic stability.
In closing, I reiterate my Government’s commitment to work with everyone in our country toward securing the prosperity of our people. I pledge further to pursue the excellence to which we must aspire if our future is to be secure.
Finally, I undertake to uphold and promote the ideals of truth and fairness that we cherish and at all times, with God’s help, to act so as to strengthen your trust in Government.
I wish each and every one of you peace and fulfillment in this year and in the years to come.
May God bless us all.