THE RAMU NICKEL debacle highlights a chronic symptom that afflicts the people and government of Papua New Guinea.
Not corruption, but rather the lack of a clear policy direction on investment and trade relations.
It has become increasingly difficult for PNG to negotiate agreements and arrangements around investment and trade that have wide ranging benefits beyond a simple agreement to sell our resources.
Having sat around mahogany tables in Canberra, Beijing, Brussels, Geneva, New York and Washington negotiating foreign and trade relations for our great country, the golden question every shrewd negotiator asks is “what’s in it for us.”
We tend to prematurely react by giving everything under the sun - tax holidays, environment waivers, blocked legal proceedings etc. When the other side then waits for our demands, we have a vertical demand - money. Nothing more.
China has huge technological, capital and human resources that PNG desperately needs: in defence, ICT, innovation, agriculture, health, education and host of other areas.
Therefore, our objective should be to investigate the horizontal benefits that may accrue to PNG and move deeper into pushing them as the fundamental basis of investment and trade relations. In other words, not just money but our development aspirations must be articulated in negotiations.
We do entertain giving tax breaks, but the larger, more sticky, questions of immigration, environment and social issues require thousands of hours to ponder. T
When it comes to the inevitable negotiating trade offs, my dear friends, this is where on so many occasions we fail to raise the flag.
We need to fight the fight at the negotiating phase, which is far more effective than the courtrooms.
All over the world I have witnessed a desire to invest and trade in PNG. From the Gulf of Aden to the foothills of the Caucuses right to the plains of the American west, they all fly in to see what’s going on in Ramu, Freda, Komo, Kikori, Pac Manus, Simberi, Cromwell and more.
The public service is stretched and runs on bare bones, we extend scarce resources to establish negotiating demands. The saving grace at the moment is highly intelligent ministers, seasoned negotiators themselves, who are making the hard yards and articulating our development demands.
The current Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Sam Abal, is an exceptional man who has a great understanding of investment and trade relations compared to his predecessors and fellow ministers.
When last year he pushed aid effectiveness as the precursor to investment and trade to his then Australian counterpart, Stephen Smith, he changed the vertical approach PNG government had been using.
In summary he said, if you’re genuine in being a partner, let’s talk about aid and everything that comes with it. The benefits of this horizontal approach is that is permits development issues to be discussed and traded off with rocks, gas, oil, fish and any other material the Aussies are interested in.
As in any policy articulation, Cabinet discipline is required to allow Minister Abal and his officers to contribute meaningfully in natural resource negotiations with Exonn Mobil, MCC and the rest, so they work within a sound investment and trade framework that promotes the PNG agenda.
Abal’s officers need to formulate appropriate negotiating modalities. Only than we can tell the likes of China that it’s not all money, and to give us our due.
Countryside is a senior Papua New Guinean public servant