The recent 8th PNG Mining and Petroleum Investment Conference in Sydney on December 6 and 7, 2004 has been described as the most upbeat meeting ever convened by the PNG Chamber of Mines and Petroleum.
There was one major discordant note struck during two days of discussions and this occurred when the final speaker, Australia's former Deputy High Commissioner to PNG, Nicholas Coppell, provided his Foreign Ministry's view of The Road Ahead for PNG. Basically this involved four prospective scenarios drawn up by the highly reputable Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics on the PNG economy.
Even the best of these was totally bleak. It suggested gross domestic product (GDP) would grow by 1 per cent real annually in the coming decade, translating to steadily declining per capita incomes for Papua New Guineans. Many PNG attendees at the conference were annoyed at the views of the Economic Analytical Unit of Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, though it was in keeping with various academic and other commentaries on PNG coming out of Australia. Generally these promote a view of PNG as a failing state, which is possibly a fair interpretation of a country faced with steadily declining incomes over long periods of time.
Such bleak views have one thing on their side. PNG's recent historical performance has not been good, providing grist for the mill of economists and other commentators who have an overwhelming tendency to be part of a bandwagon.
And, of course, it could be argued that the government's mishandling of the partial privatisation of Telikom PNG supports the view of those who believe the future will not be much different from the past.
I prefer to view the Econet fiasco as an aberration, although this would not be the case if new players, who only recently sought to topple the government, replaced key current players in the new Cabinet line-up that will be announced shortly.
PNG certainly has a history of excessive budget deficits and poor economic management followed by a government that fixes things up for someone else to mess up. Fortunately in the past five years there have been some positive changes that have a permanency about them, such as the greatly improved regulatory climate and performances of our superannuation funds. The jury is still out on whether improvements in terms of excessive government borrowings and big budget deficit blowouts are things of the past.
The present government had to rescue the nation from what would have been the worst deficit ever in 2002, a grim reminder of the big deficits in 1992 and 1993 just as large quantities of Kutubu oil entered world markets. But to get back to DFAT's The Road Ahead - its four scenarios are total bunkum where the computer dictum, "garbage in, garbage out", fits perfectly.
Why is this so? Even the best scenario we believe is unrealistic. It only factors in nickel mining at Ramu and gold at Kainantu, the gas project and an assumed increase in agricultural productivity. This is fair enough, but if Ramu is good enough for development so are at least three other medium and large-scale projects. The Hidden Valley gold project (about three times the output at Kainantu) and the even bigger Wafi gold and Golpu copper-gold projects are safer bets.
There will also be several small mines started up in various parts of the country and possibly some other large projects.
There will certainly be other major spin offs from the gas project. Among those being contemplated are a petrochemical plant to produce alternate energy fuels, another plant to convert gas to diesel and a proposal to export compressed natural gas (CNG) to New Zealand. With the availability of natural gas on the domestic market there are other potential benefits, including the possibility of more competitively priced electricity supplies.
It is ironic that Australia spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year on grants to PNG but does not seem willing to carry out more meaningful analysis on the PNG economy, or even to report on the efficacy of its annual aid programs.
If the Australian Government does that there would have been no need for the four simplistic scenarios published in The Road Ahead although they provide a clear message that there is no room for complacency.
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