Good evening, my fellow countrymen.
The year 2006 is ending tonight and tomorrow we face another day and a new year. This point in time is created by man, something that we have set ourselves to set a fixed frame for our life. It has its background in nature itself, the rising sun, the ending of the dark season, the portent for new life, as does Christmas for Christians. The turn of the year promises light and new hopes for the future. I wish to use the opportunity to wish one and all a happy and prosperous new year.
This past year was one of economic prosperity. We have not solved all our material wants, but in all fairness it must be concluded that last year was one of the best that any nation on earth can offer its citizens. We Icelanders tend to travel far and wide and we have therefore a good opportunity to compare ourselves to other nations and count ourselves lucky to be able to live in this country. All economic indicators and comparisons with other countries show that we are well off.
This is the broad picture. Behind it, we find that the fortunes of individuals can differ. Let us not forget that there are people in our society that face difficulties, both economic and social. It is a never-ending task for those of us in politics to tackle such issues. The more the nation prospers as a whole, the easier it will be to improve the lot of those who are most disadvantaged and give them hope for a better future.
Icelandic society has changed rapidly in recent years and there is every indication that substantial changes are ahead. Here, I believe that there are many influences at work. Let me name but two of the most obvious. The forces of globalisation are moving nations closer together in every sense of the word. Improvements in living standards make foreign travel more affordable and global technological progress is more rapid than ever before, especially in the field of telecommunications. Our society must deal with many of the tasks that this rapid global progress brings to our doorstep.
The rapid increase in the number of foreigners that have come to our country has been under considerable discussion of late. This is one of the consequences of Iceland becoming a part of the global mainstream. It is important for us to deal with this issue with a broad mind. The time has passed when we could hide behind barriers and protect our culture and language with our insular distance from other countries. We now live in an open society full of opportunities that attract people from other countries. We must get used to the presence of foreigners in our midst, both those who stay here temporarily and the others who have come here to settle down and become a part of our society as new Icelanders. It is important for us to see to it that such immigrants will become productive members of our society and a source of pride for our nation, enrich our culture but not become a source of strife. To judge by the experience from our neighbour countries, there are many pitfalls to avoid here. We must of course continue our diligent surveillance of those persons that come here for illicit purposes in order to keep them far away from our shores.
The other main source of change has been the opening of our society that began a decade and a half ago. The main thrust of that effort was to remove a whole range of barriers and increase freedom in economic life. This effort has been very successful. Our economy has expanded by more than 50 per cent and the purchasing power of households even more. Behind this effort, there is the steadfast belief that the initiative and creativity of each person should be given a chance to develop. Europeans learned from bitter experience in the last century how cruel political and economic dictatorships could bring whole nations into disaster. We no longer need to debate such basic issues, although we may still differ on ways and means.
Along with these changes, we have been fortunate that the bargaining parties in the labour market have now joined forces to improve the lot of both employers and employees instead of resorting to bitter and damaging labour disputes. Common sense was given priority. And where common sense reigns, good solutions will ensue. It was no doubt important that the knowledge of the mechanism of the economy has improved through better education. In this sense, it may be asserted that higher education has been of substantial benefit.
This review shows that we Icelanders were able to get out of the old rut at the right time and face a new era with a forward-looking attitude. And that is the way it should be. No one can doubt that this has been of great benefit to us.
Looking towards the future, we can envisage a number of opportunities.
One of the basic duties of an independent nation is to ensure the safety of its citizens, protect the country and its sovereignty. The US Defence Force left the country last year, causing radical change in our defence. Following its departure, the Government has placed great emphasis upon ensuring an adequate defence. A new agreement with our old allies in the west, the United States, is of great importance in this respect and is based on the original Defence Agreement. We have also had discussions with our North-Atlantic neighbours regarding our mutual interests in such issues as patrolling the seas and providing safety and rescue services. No one can doubt that the scope of defence and security issues has radically changed. Our plans will be developed with regard thereto.
The main task of politics is to manage the economy. The extent of such management has diminished after we succeeded in breaking the never-ending cycle of short-term measures, directing instead our attention to economic fundamentals. We are a nation of great expectations which puts our economy under strain. One of our most important tasks is to strengthen the economic balance so that our demands and economic activity be in realistic balance with the capacity of the economy. We have no reason not to be optimistic, and our latest inflation figures show that we are on the right path. Economic stability is of prime importance because it strengthens the foundations of our economic progress.
A good environment is to an increasing extent a part of the standard of living we wish for ourselves and our children. Environmental issues have been the subject of heated debate in recent years. This is regrettable, because actually we are far more in agreement in our views on the protection of our natural environment than we differ. We are all in favour of a sustainable use of our natural resources and treating our environment with care. We need to strengthen our consensus on these issues.
Let us all move forward into the new year with the interests of all at heart. The equality of men and women still leaves much to be desired. Attitudes have fortunately changed and the legal framework has been strengthened. The new Childbirth Leave Act has done much to improve gender equality. Still, we are beset with old mores and traditions that we must dispose of. The extensive participation of women in the labour market has turned out to be a great resource for our economic development in recent years. It is a duty for us politicians to encourage a change in attitudes that makes it possible and natural for families to create equality and equal opportunity, both in the home as well as in the workplace.
In times of rapid change, it is important to stand on firm ground so that we can manage oncoming change rather than let change manage us. The old values that parents have taught their children for generations – modesty, a work ethic, loyalty, religion, respect for our fellow man – these and other values are timeless and everlasting, regardless of the passing of events. The inner strength of the nation as well as of each and every person will determine our fortunes in the future. Let us remember that children only learn to respect others if they are respected themselves. One of the basic rules for success in life is to learn to respect others as well as oneself.
I hope that most of us can say goodbye to the old year with fond memories. Let us not forget those who have grieved and suffered, lost their loved ones, whether from sickness or in those terrible accidents that have occurred this past year and have affected us all. We pray that they may find their strength again.
In 2007, a hundred years will have passed since education became compulsory in Iceland. This centennial should remind us of the value of instruction and education that is in line with contemporary demands. One of the basic parts of the education of all Icelanders is to be introduced to the works of our beloved poet, Jónas Hallgrímsson. This coming year, two hundred years will have passed since his birth. This will be commemorated, both here in Iceland as well as in Copenhagen, where Jónas worked most of his life.
Let me conclude by wishing all of you, my fellow countrymen, a happy and prosperous New Year and thank you for the year that is now passing away. As Jónas said, “In God’s love and peace”.