Oct 25, 2020 Last Updated 9:52 PM, Oct 21, 2020

Fiji’s Amalgamated Telecom Holdings’ (ATH) recent US$25 million investment from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to finance a greenfield 4G mobile network in Papua New Guinea, is a vote of confidence in the regional telecommunications powerhouse.

ATH has operations in Fiji, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Samoa, American Samoa, and Cook Islands, but the PNG venture is by far its biggest play.  While dominant in Fiji through its Vodafone, Telecom, FINTEL and Fiji Directories businesses, and listed on the stock exchange there, 22% of its earnings are generated outside the country.

That is set to expand considerably. The ABD estimates only 11% of Papua New Guinea’s population is able to connect to the internet. ATH Chief Executive Officer Ivan Fong says they’ve looked at PNG with the ADB before, but with Australia’s funding of the Coral Sea cable, falling satellite prices and Kumul Consolidated Holdings’ construction of domestic fibre and transmission networks, the timing was right to deliver a “last mile” project to reach businesses and consumers—the coronavirus pandemic notwithstanding.

“ We acknowledge that there are three operators in that market and they serve that market to varying degrees, but when you look at the business surveys …in the last few years telecommunications has been creeping up there to the top [as a challenge]. So we think there is an opportunity to provide an uplift to the services in that market and to potentially modernise some of what consumers can have in the country as well.”

Read more in Islands Business online.

Trailblazing, hardworking, audacious, always vivacious and sometimes controversial were among tributes and recollections shared of Papua New Guinea and Manus political pioneer, Nahau Rooney who passed away on Tuesday 15th September.

Rooney was one of three women elected at PNG’s first post-Independence elections in 1977  to its 109 member national parliament. She was re-elected in 1982 as the regional member for Manus province.

The news of Rooney’s death arrived as the nation and former politicians met to celebrate PNG’s 45th Independence anniversary.

Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, in whose cabinet  Rooney served as justice minister, described her as a “hardworking female Papua New Guinean” during his term as prime minister.

Rooney drew controversy during her early career when, as Minister for Justice in 1979, she was sentenced by the Supreme Court to eight months in jail for interfering with the administration of justice.

Sir Michael gave a slight smile as he recalled how he overturned the decision.

He said: “She was my first cabinet minister. Even though she was jailed I took her out of jail.

“She was a wonderful woman and she worked very hard for Papua New Guinea.

“I feel sorry for the Manus people especially her family. Manus has lost a great leader in Nahau.

“She performed very well as a woman and she showed that women in Papua New Guinea can do something. My wife (Lady Veronica) and I know her personally,” Sir Michael told Gynnie Gelu, the Editor of the National in Moresby.

A former UN Women Pacific Regional Director, who spent decades working with PNG women’s rights and women farmers’ organisations and networks herself,  Elizabeth Cox recalls, “Nahau Rooney was  an energetic member of the early post-independence governments that made genuine efforts to catalyse constitutional promises of equality, participation and a focus  on rural development.

“Sir Michael Somare believed in Nahau. Her female peers were inspired by her and she enjoyed the support of a loving husband, happy to let her shine while he worked hard at home in Manus researching disease in staple food crops and building their family’s small business.” 

Rooney supported many good causes along the way, and was a leading advocate for women to organise and raise their collective voices.  She was a constant and inspiring presence at conferences and workshops to encourage women’s participation in PNG politics. Climate change and its impact on the environment in Manus and elsewhere in PNG and the Pacific were among her many passions and worries. “She was against destructive logging and fishing and as early as 2001, protested the Australian government moves to make her beloved home a prison for asylum seekers,” Cox recalls.

PNG Governor General Sir Bob Dadae also expressed sadness over the news of the passing of Rooney while using the opportunity to acknowledge PNG women’s leadership and encouraging their rightful place in PNG politics. “As the first female politician of our country soon after our independence, Rooney demonstrated early on to the womenfolk that women too can become politicians and be involved in decision making, a task that is, in our society, traditionally performed by the men,” Sir Bob said.

“She held various ministerial portfolios during her political career and was not one to hold back from freely expressing her opinion. She set the benchmark for women at a time when women’s role in society was relegated to the home and not in decision making for the nation as a politician and minister of state.

 “To the people of Manus, Rooney demonstrated to the rest of the country the potential of what the women of Manus can achieve,” said Sir Bob.

Rooney was married to Wes Rooney, an Australian, who was later murdered (shot dead) on Manus. In the 2000s, retired from politics, her environmental and women’s rights activism continued, while she ran a family guest lodge on Manus Island.

In 2006, Rooney was honoured with the title of the Companion of the Order of the Star of Melanesia. “Nahau leaves us with an important legacy, one that challenges us all to do as much as she did to build a stronger women’s movement in PNG, to get more women into parliament and to make the voices of PNG’s post-independence daughters heard in the region and in the world,” said Cox.

Ms Rooney is survived by her children, Kevin, Michelle, Poyap, Gabriel, Nawes, Eva, and many grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Gynnie Kero is currently the news editor with PNG’s daily newspaper the National.

Sadhana Sen is the Regional Communications Advisor for the Development Policy Centre at ANU.

Westpac says it will not respond to speculation in Australian media this week that it is on the verge of selling its Pacific businesses.

A Westpac Fiji spokesperson says the Bank “is currently undertaking strategic review of its specialist businesses, as we shared with the market in May. This includes wealth platforms, superannuation products, investments, general and life insurance and auto finances well as Westpac Pacific.

“Given this, there is going to be ongoing speculation circulating – as there has been since Westpac sold some Pacific operations in 2015. Westpac does not respond to speculation and, as always, if there is news to share about our business, our people and customers will hear it from us.”

On Monday, The Australian newspaper [paywall]  reported that it had information Westpac was close to selling its Pacific banking operations, and that while the buyer’s identity was unclear, “logical acquirers” would be either the Papua New Guinea-headquartered Bank South Pacific (BSP) or France’s BRED.

Westpac sold its Samoa, Cook Islands, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Tonga operations to BSP in 2015. It retains operations in Fiji and PNG.

In May this year, Westpac announced statutory net profit was down 62% (A$1,190 million) for the first half of 2020, compared to the first half of 2019. In a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange it said it was clear that Westpac needed to “simplify and focus on its Australian and New Zealand banking businesses,” and that a Specialist Businesses division under the leadership of Jason Yetton would review Westpac’s Pacific businesses, superannuation, wealth investments, insurance and auto finance.

“Over the coming months we will conduct a detailed strategic review on the best option for these businesses. This will include considering whether they would ultimately be more successful under different ownership” the Bank said in May.

Meanwhile in Fiji, “customers can be assured that we are here to help and continue  our support to people and communities across Fiji, including through our COVID-19 customer assistance package,” the Westpac Fiji spokesperson says.

PNG economy, health hit hard

  • Oct 25, 2020
  • Published in August

The impact of COVID-19 is accentuating trends that had already developed over the last decade, says  University of Papua New Guinea lecturer in economics, Maholopa Laveil.

He lists amongst these trends: “falling employment, large fiscal deficits, very mild resource growth and the increasing debt burden.”

Laveil says the exchange rate “is the only policy lever for government right now to use so it can allow a managed depreciation of the kina, but it refuses to do so. And the reforms going forward will be undermined by a looming vote of no confidence in November this year, a misperception of stability held by many government employees, the durability of leading civil servants who are resistant to change, the gradual deterioration as opposed to a sudden deterioration, this does not prompt them to adopt reforms and external financing available that is not conditional on policy reforms.”

In an update published in April 2020 the International Monetary Fund suggested “the kina is overvalued by around 11 to 18%. This overvaluation could be largely eliminated over the next three years without boosting inflation excessively.”

Executive Director of the PNG Business Council, Douveri Henao, said “there is a very lively debate in the market right now with policy makers whether the devaluation of the kina should kick in.

“Those that are pro-devaluation, their main argument is that everything is slowing down so this is the time to actually devalue. Whereas others, especially on the government side, are more reluctant because of the debt financing pegged into a stronger Kina.”

Henao says the Council is working hard to ensure businesses can survive, saying “we simply cannot go back to an April lockdown state of emergency scenario”. He says CEOS and managing directors the Council spoke to at that time, 75% expected revenue to decline, 70% expected a profit decline and 66% indicated they won't be operating any business by the end of the year. Henao says businesses are negotiating a co-regulation model where “social distancing, hygiene protocols, staff rotation protocols are now becoming the compliance mechanism that businesses are undertaking,” allowing them to continue operating.

He indicates that there have been signs of market resilience, with fresh produce moving across the market, “There have also been substitutions on services as well,  more PNG management are rising up to executive positions.   When the March period kicked in,  there were lots of expatriates that left the country,  called from their governments and in particular Australia.   All of those positions are being filled up by PNG middle to senior management.

“[There] has been a massive uptake on technology.  All the consumables have jumped up by 30-40% in purchases because everything's online from school curriculums to business engagement and so forth.”

The ADB projects economic growth will decline to -1.5% this year, likely leading to further cash flow problems for government. Development Policy Centre’s COVID Economic Database notes projected economic growth of -1.5% for 2020, down from 2% pre-COVID. Government revenue is anticipated to fall by 15% and debt will rise to 43.7% of GDP.

“The latest international commodity price data published by the World Bank in April 2020 indicate a general fall in the prices of PNG’s main export commodities. Prices for Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), copper and nickel declined, while that of gold picked up reflecting investors’ preference for a safe haven investment. Non-mineral commodity prices for cocoa, coffee and palm oil also increased providing some relief to PNG exporters,” Bank of PNG Governor, Loi Bakani wrote for the Pacific Forum blog recently.

“The significant drop in some of the commodity prices has already affected PNG’s export tax revenue and foreign exchange inflows, and will continue to put pressure on the foreign exchange market. The Government’s support to increase local production and ensure its food security requirements are at a satisfactory level is critical to sustain domestic consumption, while reducing the country’s dependency on imports.”

PNG’s Acting Health Secretary has announced another suspected death from COVID-19 in the Nation's Capital.

Dr Paison Dakulala said a 35-year-old health worker died due to respiratory illness as a result of COVID-19 over the weekend. However the man’s relatives say he died from other health issues.

Meanwhile, a first case of COVID-19 was reported in Lae Tuesday. There are 63 confirmed cases in PNG.

"The reality is, that based on reputable modelling, the number of cases in Papua New Guinea is much higher than that which has been recorded” Prime Minister James Marape said. “Based on current numbers, we can expect to see a double in the number of cases every 2 to 3 days.”

The increased number of diagnoses has prompted a 14-day lockdown of Port Moresby which will see schools closed and public transport cease operations, apart from taxi services. Masks will be mandatory in public places, a  10pm-5am curfew is in place  and flights into and out of Port Moresby are restricted. There will be a maximum limit of 15 people gathering in public places.

The Business Council of PNG is concerned a prolonged lockdown could see 68% of PNG businesses shut their doors by the end of this year. Council President Nuni Kulu has suggested businesses be allowed to self-regulate to ensure high hygiene standards and social distancing.

PNG’s health system is under immense stress. Port Moresby General Hospital has reorganised its emergency department and essential services, and has made a public appeal for a wide range of supplies including face masks, gloves, fruit and vegetables, bottled water, toilet paper and motor vehicles for staff transportation.  Meanwhile the PNG Nurses Association is threatening strike action. It has petitioned the government calling for a change in management at the health department, citing shortages in personal protection equipment (PPE) for front line officers, an absence of standarding operating procedures, and a lack of training and alloances for nurses caring for COVID-19 patients.

Meanwhile Australia is sending up to eight medical specialists to PNG next week to assist with the COVID-19 response.“This forward team will provide immediate on ground assessment to improve laboratory strengthening, case management, infection control, triage and emergency management, and public health,” an Australian government statement said. The United States has  donated 40 ventilators to PNG on top of the US$3.5 million provided to the PNG government for the response. China has also donated ventilators and PPE kits to PNG. PPE kits have also been donated by UNICEF, World Bank, Japan Government, Newcrest Mining and others.

Down south, the mayor of Torre Shire in North Queensland says border controls may need to be tightened to stop PNG nationals entering the Torres Strait for emergency health care.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has already said security at the Solomon Islands-Papua New Guinea border remains a top priority.

“As you might already be aware, in previous weeks, we had a case involving two PNG nationals who have crossed the border and came into contact with seven of our locals. All seven individuals have undergone quarantine and their tests have returned negative,” the Solomon Star reports Sogavare as saying.

Sources: Pacnews/NBC NEWS/MOROBE PROVINCIAL HEALTH AUTHORITY/ISLANDS BUSINESS

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