Interview: Portia Simpson-Miller, Prime Minister of Jamaica

Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller speaks exclusively to Global on reducing the national debt, catering for the most vulnerable people in society and the country’s sporting achievements. 

Jamaica’s first female Prime Minister was initially elected to office in 2006. After just a year Portia Simpson-Miller’s party, the People’s National Party, narrowly lost a general election, consigning her to five years in opposition. Re-elected in 2012, Simpson-Miller – a graduate of Harvard and the Institute of Management and Production in Jamaica – stood on an agenda of republicanism and gay rights. 

Global: This is your second term in office. What did you learn from your first term, and what are you doing differently this time around?

Portia Simpson-Miller: People value a record of performance, but they are also excited by change. My year and a half as Prime Minister was not long enough to accomplish what was necessary in 2006-07. My administration received a mandate in 2011 for a more united, disciplined and ‘joined-up’ approach to governance, involving more communication with the people – and we have been adopting that approach during the last year and a half. 

While addressing the National Association of Jamaica and Supportive Organizations in July, you stated that the government has to take “some serious, hard and bold decisions which have serious consequences for all of us”. What are these decisions, and what effect do you believe they will have?

The “hard and bold” decisions involve severely reducing our level of indebtedness, with the attendant increase in taxation, contraction in government expenditure, and improved facilitation of investment and job creation. In the early stages of our Economic Reform Programme, there is inevitably some loss of jobs, cost of living increases and slow economic growth. We have also been doing everything possible to protect the poor and the most vulnerable. But we have to keep our attention focused on the medium- and long-term goals and maintain our resolve to do what it takes to return our country to economic buoyancy and social equity. 

On 31 July, you signed – on behalf of the government – the Partnership for Jamaica Agreement (PFJ), the first ever social partnership agreement in Jamaica. You emphasised that this agreement marked a critical point in the nation’s history. Can you elaborate further on this?

The signing of the Partnership for Jamaica Agreement is the beginning of a national assault on the factors which are inhibiting growth. It was possible because leaders in major sectors of national life have come to the realisation that concerted action, with a national rather than a sectoral focus, is absolutely necessary. We know that the real work lies ahead, but it is significant that government, the private sector, the union movement and civil society organisations have come together to commit to a national programme. 

Social partnerships are a means by which countries can cope with harsh economic circumstances. Success lies not only in concluding the partnership, but in maintaining it as well. How do you intend to ensure that this partnership is sustained?

The partnership will be sustained by maintaining the focus on the agreed targets, the agreed modalities of dialogue to a purpose, and the spirit which has been shown within the Partnership Council throughout the year. We also intend to engage the broader society through the Partnership Council as a body and through its members in their respective spheres of influence, knowing that understanding each other, the ability to disagree respectfully and an emphasis on agreed specific outcomes all facilitate our working on solutions – rather than complaining about problems. 

Distrust in social and political institutions – largely resulting from perceptions of widespread corruption and mismanagement – is a major challenge to nation building. What changes do you believe need to be made to social and political institutions to regain public faith?

We are doing a number of things. We have started to strengthen the mechanisms for reducing corruption. We have already commenced the legislative process to establish a single anti-corruption agency and we are also working to change the mindset of the society as a whole to make corruption so abhorrent to the individual that we will resist it at all costs. 

Jamaica’s public debt burden is a major challenge, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 130 per cent – one of the highest debt interest burdens in the world. What is your administration doing to reduce public debt?

We have signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which supports our efforts on economic reform. We are aware that the programme is painful, but we are determined that succeeding generations must not be burdened by the unsustainable debt ratios which now cripple our economy, stifle our growth prospects and negatively impact our quality of life. 

Earlier this year, the IMF agreed to a new loan package, which included a fiscal adjustment programme introducing reforms to social welfare. What measures have been put in place to protect the most vulnerable groups in society?

We take the business of social inclusion and protection for the most vulnerable in our society very seriously. Our policies and programmes for the elderly, for persons with disabilities – in health care and housing – have been carefully developed and executed to ensure that the critical provisions are in place for those who are most in need of them. 

You are the first Head of Government in Jamaican history to endorse civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. Has any progress been made in achieving LGBT rights?

In 2011, I made it clear that there would be no discrimination in or by my administration in relation to persons on the basis of their sexual orientation. There is a specific law which I committed to review. There has been a great deal of public discussion on issues relating to alternative lifestyles which will add value to the parliamentary debates on the subject. Discrimination against any person is strongly denounced. 

Jamaica has made significant progress towards gender equality, equity and women’s empowerment. You are the first female Head of Government of Jamaica, and only the third in the Anglophone Caribbean. How do you see Jamaica moving forward in terms of gender equality, and what role do you hope to play in this process?

We have very vibrant women leaders in our country, serving in the civil society and business sectors. I have ensured that within the government and the parliament we have promoted women on merit. I believe we are making satisfactory progress. Through education, improved parenting and family life, we are working towards the full development of the potential of both genders. 

In your inaugural speech, you stated that Jamaica should remove the Queen as Head of State. Why do you believe this is important?

As I said on the occasion of my swearing-in last year, my admiration for Her Majesty is beyond question, and I stand by that. There is no doubt that she has been a gracious and engaging Queen and a model of dedication to duty, which has been a feature of her entire reign. 

In our 50th year of political independence, the government of Jamaica announced a decision to act on one of the aspects of constitutional reform which has been in serious contemplation for almost 20 years. We decided to ensure that all the elements and symbols of our governance system are fully representative of Jamaica. This is why we are beginning the process to have a Jamaican national as our ceremonial President and our official Head of State. 

It is now time for Jamaica to take a stand on our system of government, after 51 years of political independence. 

Your love of sports and appreciation of Jamaica’s athletes is well known. With all your responsibilities of office, do you still manage to find the time to enjoy your nation’s sports?

I make the time to enjoy the performances of our sportsmen and women. This is important not only for me as a person who loves sport and supports our sportspeople, or even as the Minister for Sport, but because sport is also a great motivator of our people, old and young, as well as a significant contributor to the promotion of our country internationally. Sport adds significant value to brand Jamaica and is the most powerful, unifying force in the world. 


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