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Building a sustainable economic future for Bougainville

John Momis, speaking at CairnsJOHN MOMIS | Edited extracts

SUSTAINABLE peace and sustainable economic development are inextricably linked.

While there are many other facets to the ongoing peace-building efforts in Bougainville, there is little prospect for success in peace-building without sustainable economic development.

While we are certainly making some progress, at present we are a long way from achieving that vitally important goal.

As you all know, there are significant challenges in the way of Papua New Guinea finding its way forward towards a realistic path for building a sustainable economic future.

In the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, we face additional challenges and constraints. At the same time, it’s not always realised that we also have some uniquely positive attributes and possibilities.

I must address two significant issues I expect to be of considerable interest or concern to potential investors.

The first concerns what I see should be the limited direct role of government in future economic development in Bougainville.

The second concerns the fundamental importance of the PNG national government and the ABG together achieving complete implementation of the Bougainville Peace Agreement.

It is, after all, their joint creation, directed to responding to both sources and impacts of the terrible nine year Bougainville conflict (1988-1997).

In my view, government should not be directly involved in economic activity.  There is ample evidence from experience in Port Moresby – and some in Bougainville – of the grave risks associated with direct government involvement in business activities.

We all know the kinds of problems here. They can include: corruption; mismanagement; conflicts of interests; and diversion of scarce resources actually needed to provide and improve the basic services and infrastructure needed to attract responsible investment in the first place.

Rather, government involvement should, as far as possible, be limited to three main areas of responsibility:

First, necessary regulation setting broad parameters within which economic activity should occur;

Second, provision of basic services needed for economic development;

Third, provision of infrastructure and similar things needed to support sustainable economic development.

Under the constitutionally based autonomy arrangements under the Bougainville Peace Agreement, responsibility in Bougainville for regulation of business is at present divided between PNG and ABG laws.

As the process of transfer of powers to the ABG continues, it will increasingly be a matter for Bougainville laws. We recognise that differences in regulatory regimes in the same country can be a factor that can cause concerns for investors.

At the same time, I must emphasise that the ABG will sometimes be obliged to take a different regulatory approach from that of PNG. After all, the Bougainville Peace Agreement of 2001 states that the major purpose of the autonomy arrangements under which the ABG operates is to “empower Bougainvilleans to solve their own problems, manage their own affairs and work to realize their aspirations.”

It is sometimes forgotten that the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agreement was entered into in order to end the worst, the most violent, divisive, and bloody conflict ever fought between Pacific Islanders.

The agreement was between the national government and leaders of the major groups in the previously opposing Bougainville factions. But it was also witnessed by the international community – including representatives of the UN, Australia, New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu.

In witnessing the agreement, the international community was seen as committing to supporting the full implementation of the agreement.

The extent of its implementation to date, though far from complete, has contributed to reducing tensions and divisions, and towards building sustainable peace. But divisions, tensions and suspicions remain.

Amongst other things, tensions and suspicions continue over the referendum on Bougainville’s political future. The referendum is a difficult issue, even for some in Bougainville.

Many there see the referendum as essential to finally resolving a question that has festered since the 1950s. But there are also some who remain concerned that Bougainville is too divided to have a free and fair referendum.

But of course, for many in the national government, few issues could be more sensitive and threatening than the possible separation of Bougainville from PNG. Some opposition to the referendum being held in accordance with the Agreement is still sometimes evident.

Of course, the provision for the referendum can also be a source of concern for potential investors. It could suggest uncertainty and tensions around Bougainville’s political future, which could undermine confidence of financiers and investors.

It’s perhaps not surprising then that one or two potential investors have hinted at being interested to know if the referendum might be delayed for an extended period, or perhaps a decision made not to hold the referendum.

However, it’s essential to recognise that in circumstances where a long-term destructive and divisive conflict has been resolved by a solemn agreement, witnessed by the international community, that the referendum must be held. There are much graver risks of instability and uncertainty should that promise not be honoured.

I am far from certain what the outcome of the referendum will be. The vital thing, to me, is to ensure that there is a fair and honest process that helps us all resolve the question of  Bougainville’s political future.

If the process is handled in the right manner, with complete integrity and transparency, then whatever the outcome, all parties should be able to cooperate in working cooperatively together after the referendum.

Presentation by John L Momis, President of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville to the Australia Papua New Guinea Business Forum, 15-17 May 2016 in Cairns, Australia

You can read the complete speech here -  Download 'The Way Forward', by John L Momis


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