Five questions for Jay Bartlett, Chairman of the Solomon Islands’ Chamber of Commerce

Neighbouring Solomon Islands has strong business ties with Papua New Guinea. Jay Bartlett, Chairman of the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry, tells Business Advantage PNG that the country has some positive prospects, especially with its new undersea telecommunications cable.

Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Jay Bartlett

Business Advantage PNG: How is the Solomon Islands’ agricultural sector progressing?

Jay Bartlett: There are small niche products getting exported at the moment. In the medium term, there are plans for expansion of the palm oil industry. A subsidiary of New Britain Palm Oil, Guadalcanal Plains Palm Oil is looking at more plantations; that is in the pipeline. There just needs to be some key infrastructure built: two bridges to open up access. Cassava exports are still on a quite small scale. Virgin coconut oil production has been growing slowly, but could potentially be affected by the spread of the Coconut rhino beetle.

BAPNG: How much of a threat is that?

Bartlett: That is a huge threat to the livelihoods of our rural population, which depends on the coconut industry. It is also having a negative impact on the palm oil industry as well. It is spreading around the Solomons at the moment and being found in a number of different provinces. There has been a task force established. The Chamber of Commerce is working with the government and the Ministry of Agriculture. The private sector is taking the lead to find a solution. It needs to be a biological solution—try to find a virus that will kill it.

BAPNG: How is business seeing the Australian Government-funded undersea telecom cable, announced in January 2018?

Bartlett: It will definitely lead to more efficiency in business, lower costs and increased speeds. After that immediate impact, experience suggests that consumption will double every years for the first five years. It also creates other avenues where we can use technology a lot more to deliver services and infrastructure; connectivity is always a challenge and logistics costs are always very expensive. I think innovation is a big area that can grow from this.

Tax revenue as % of GDP (red Solomons, brown Fiji, yellow PNG, purple Vanuatu, blue Samoa, pink Australia). Source: Deloitte

BAPNG: How would you assess the government’s three-year review into tax reform, which was launched last year?

Bartlett: It is a very positive step. We in the private sector—the Chamber of Commerce—are part of the committee, so we are trying to ensure that the government understands the business point of view and how we would like to see the reform happen. It will broaden the base, make tax easier to pay and broaden the net. There is a large informal sector that at the moment isn’t contributing to government revenue so, hopefully, we can look at getting more businesses into the formal sector with a simplified tax system. That is something we can promote.

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BAPNG: How similar are Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands?

Bartlett: The Solomon Islands is mostly Melanesian, and has strong cultural connections with Papua New Guinea. I think people that invest and run business in Papua New Guinea and Melanesia probably see the Solomons as a good opportunity as well.

We are planning a trade delegation from the Solomons to Papua New Guinea. It will be a partnership between the private sector and government just to gauge what sort of interest we can get in PNG and also for us to go on a bit of a learning mission as well.

Accessibility to land is always challenging. Similar to Papua New Guinea, 85 per cent of the land is customary land and only 15 per cent is registered land. We need to get some ownership structures in place so we can move on development and get infrastructure in place. There are different models in the Pacific. Some of them are quite successful, like in Fiji—they have the Native Land Trust Board. But it is a long-term process. Land reform is about people, not land. We have to go through some sort of identification process to really understand who is there and what people own.

Jay Bartlett will be making a special business briefing on the Solomon Islands at the Business Advantage Papua New Guinea Investment Conference, to be held on August 6 & 7 at the Sofitel Brisbane Central.

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