Many would not have seen it among the ceremony and pomp that has accompanied Prime Minister O’Neill’s historic visit to Bougainville – it was the big ‘for sale’ sign O’Neill and Momis have just dangled around the island.
This is partly because O’Neill’s visit has been portrayed by a pliable media contingent as a historic act of reconciliation between PNG and Bougainville; the breaking of arrows. ‘Why here’, ‘why now’, are not words any one dares utter. But utter they should.
For the past three years the ABG has made its development strategy clear – the sell-off of Bougainville’s marine, timber and mineral resources to foreign investors. As a result President Momis has been busy in the Philippines and China enjoying five star treatment, while Asian investors eye Bougainville’s riches, along with the old-hand Rio Tinto.
But there is one problem niggling at the President, ‘stability’. If foreign investors are to be wooed, they need to be able to convince creditors that they are not about to park their funds in a black hole. As BCL’s Chairman recently told the Murdoch press in Australia:
When I need to raise the money for this mine, by going to banks and investors, wanting to raise billions of dollars, they’re going to say: “Tell me about Bougainville.” If Bougainville is the world’s newest nation, with no track record of managing projects, as opposed to PNG which has a long track record, it’s going to be easier to raise the money if Bougainville doesn’t go down the independence route. I wouldn’t even go to the market at this stage, because I can’t tell the market what they’re investing in.
Enter Prime Minister O’Neill. With concerns being increasingly raised about Bougainville’s stability as it approaches its independence referendum, O’Neill and Momis have entered a pact of convenience.
It needs to be said O’Neill is not hell bent on keeping Bougainville – he will respect the referendum decision – however, the PM certainly does not want an independent or autonomous Bougainville being a financial albatross around PNG’s neck for years to come.
On the other hand, Momis has had something of an economic conversion since becoming President, and believes only a fire sale of Bougainville’s natural resources to foreign investors will save his land from ruin.
Momis and O’Neill might not like each other (!!), but they know they need each other. If PNG is to be rid of the financial albatross, O’Neill believes he must assure the international community that whatever the outcome of the referendum, PNG will act as a mature friend of Bougainville. On the other hand, Momis has bought the AusAid mantra and thinks that only the wide-scale sell off of Bougainville’s resources will establish an economic future for his island, so Momis needs O’Neill to act as a mature guarantor foreign investors can believe in.
These are not necessarily well thought out or well supported strategies, indeed they may be the quickest route to wrack and ruin; but it explains the recent odd behaviour of Momis and O’Neill, who are what the kids call these days, ‘frenemies’.