Of throwing hats over fences

By Emmanuel Narokobi

There’s this little story about procrastination I read somewhere about 2 boys that passed a house each day after school. Each day that they walked past the house, one would ask the other, ‘I wonder what’s on the other side of that fence?’ So that same question kept getting asked day in day out, until one day his mate simply grabbed his hat and threw it over the fence.

‘What did you do that for?” asked the inquisitive one. ‘Well…’ said the other, ‘…you always wanted to know what was on the other side, now you have a reason to find out.’

Now boys and girls, what does all that mean? Well, as I’ve been following the developments of Australia’s $43 billion National Broadband Network (NBN), I couldn’t help but think of Kevin Rudd as being the inquisitive boy in my (very very) short story. Certainly as far as developed countries go, our sunburnt country is several rungs below countries like Singapore and Korea for example, and this plan for a NBN has been around since Coonan was fighting Telstra for Howard, but what has caught my attention is how it has leaped from a fibre to the node project  to a fibre to the home project.

What that means is that, the original plan was to have new fibre optical cables laid from internet gateways to exchanges, in our case that would be like laying fibre from the Tiare gateway to the Boroko Exchange. The idea then was that ISP’s would then be able to fight over customers in how they connected houses and people from the exchange to customers locations.

The new plan now by Rudd is to forget fibre to the node but to take fibre right into people’s homes. The idea, to connect 90 percent of Australian homes, schools and workplaces with broadband speeds of up to 100 Mbps. It seems as though Rudd must have pondered and pondered on how best to do this and then he finally threw his hat over the fence and said lets go all out on this. This has obviously alarmed several politicians in the opposite camp like Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull who has accused Rudd of pushing a product to the public before he knew it would be profitable. The opposition leader went on to say that if Mr Rudd was a businessman he’d be in the hot seat at the Australian Securities and Investments Commission “very quickly”.

Politics and cautionary sentiments aside, an investment in infrastructure for a modern essential such as internet access is crucial. This will be the largest Australian infrastructure project since the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. The project will see the creation of a new wholesale-only fibre optic network across Australia and the government-majority owned National Broadband Network Corporation will work in partnership with the private sector over the next 7-8 years to build the network across regional and capital cities. Rudd has said that they plan to sell-off its stake in the operations within five years of it being established so that it “… injects a new player into the broadband market… a national, wholesale, open access broadband network.” Rudd also said that “it sets up a path for economic recovery and building a 21st century economy with 21st century jobs,” this will be achieved by the fact that the NBN will provide 25,000 jobs every year during the lifetime of the project, and up to 37,000 jobs during its peak. It should also add $37 billion to GDP.

Now if only our politicians in PNG could be this inquisitive about throwing their hats over the fence? What if we could stop procrastinating and fiddling with short term goals and what if we could start looking at 10 year or 20 year plans?   If you added up all the money lost in misappropriation and all the money spent on projects and expenses that were not core to the Medium Term Development Strategy, then I would love to see some 6-7 figure sums that we could commit to a fibre to the home project here in PNG.

Yes its true that the majority of our population lives in the rural parts of PNG, but the most productive people in the formal economy and all our major educational institutions are all based in towns and cities. If they could be more productive, then you can imagine the flow on effects to the rest of the informal sector.

Our two LNG projects are not the be all and end all of our country’s economy. They are simply stepping stones for us to invest in the future. And by our future I mean our people. If Australia is looking at an estimated increase in GDP of $37 billion from a $43 billion investment and you spread the Returns on Invesment over 15-20 years. Hell, why not??!! I’ll grab a politicians sulu and throw it over the fence!

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10 thoughts on “Of throwing hats over fences

  1. Thanks Emmanuel.

    Whilst we are still a long way away from the Australians in terms of our IT infrastructure development and how we could use it better to promote social and economic growth in PNG, I particularly liked the crux of what you are trying to say.

    I agree with you that our politicians and top bureaucrats have not been inquisitive enough when setting our development agendas since independence. Maybe we too are to blame because we have not caused them to be. Inquisition gives rise to foresight and foresight allows us to get the balance right between short term and long term goal setting. So I am inclined to think that we have completely messed up in setting the right development agendas for ourselves because we have not been inquisitive enough.

    Unfortunately we can not afford to simply coast along any more and not be as inquisitive as we should be and end up settling for mediocrity. The impact our LNG projects (4 by my count instead of 2) will have on our country is staggering and we need to be prepared for them. Don’t forget that we also have other projects in the minerals sector on the go at the moment whose combined worth will be just about equal to the PNG LNG project.

    In this regard, time is of the absolute essence now in terms of getting our infrastructure right and putting in place the appropriate policies to deal with the impacts these projects will have on our country. Example, the government needs to immediately address the housing problem in POM or the working class people like myself will end up being pushed into the settlements by the market forces of demand and supply for affordable housing. This is counter productive because we (the working class) are the lifeblood of the economy.

    I concur with your comment: “Our two LNG projects are not the be all and end all of our country’s economy. They are simply stepping stones for us to invest in the future.” Absolutely spot on! We need policies and mechanisms to shift the short term gains that will be generated by these projects into long term sustainable projects such as agriculture and tourism.

    What we want to avoid here is the so called “dutch disease” or the “resource curse” and I’d like to see the Department of National Planning take a centre stage in planning and cordinating our national development agendas.

    There is an urgent need for a co-ordinated and seamless effort. We must act and act soon to steer away from the dutch disease.

    My thoughts.

    Cheers
    David

  2. Emmanuel,

    Our 4 LNG projects are:

    1. PNG LNG. This is the largest of them all and is the much talked about project. It is led by a consortium including Exxon Mobil, Oil Search and Nippon Oil. They are sourcing their gas from the gas fields in the Southern Highlands province

    2. Excess gas from fields in SHP not committed to the PNG LNG project. Oil Search owns this and will commercialise it in future

    3. Liquid Natural Gas, a subsidiary of InterOil, which is sourcing its gas from the Elk and Antelope prospects in the Gulf province

    4. Rift Oil is sourcing its gas from the Puk Puk prospect in the Western province

    Cheers
    David

  3. David’s right – we do have 4 LNG projects currently in progress. The PNG LNG project is the golden egg in the basket and the media, both local and foreign, is going crazy over it. Why? Well, simply put, it’s the single biggest project in the history of PNG as a nation and it’s expected to double our current GDP. See here

    On the matter of “throwing hats over fences” – point understood Emmanuel but I would like to make the counter-argument that if there is ANY country in the world that should be treading deliberately with caution – it’s PNG. Rudd can happily hit the sack at night knowing that if the $43 Billion NBN somehow mysteriously backfires, Australia has the reserves in place to cushion the fall – even in these economically difficult times.

    David talks about being “inquisitive” but I pose the question, how can the people of PNG be “inquisitive” if they aren’t educated? For example, I go home to my village and my cousins – some older, most younger, can not comprehend the idea of the internet. They don’t know how to turn on a computer let alone wrap their heads around broadband – em mas nem blo wanpela pop band o?

    The inquisitiveness required to garnish foresight which then accommodates goal-setting is dependent on EDUCATION. We simply can’t expect the villager (85% of PNG’s population) to develop inquisitiveness overnight.

    Sure, the other 15% of us (myself included) who don’t cook our food on fires every night or shit in open pit toilets using leaves to clean our arses would love a PNG NBN like Australia’s – but on a holistic level, what is best for the PEOPLE of PNG?

    I would LOVE to see a significant portion of what any PNG LNG project earns being pumped directly into our Education System. Educate our people and you give them the ability to be “inquisitive” for the rest of their LIVES.

    Ultimately – You can’t use the internet if you don’t know it exists.

    Tavurvur

  4. True T, some good points there about Rudd hitting the sack without any worries, but internet to enhance education won’t exist in the first place if the infrastructure for it is not invested in.

    Also the uneducated villagers won’t be the one’s capable of dealing with infrastructure strains on a sudden increase in GDP, it will be us in the towns and all the SME’s who will. So I’d say primarily that roads, communications and health should be first up. Because once a villager entrepreneur can get to markets cheaply then he can pay school fee’s for his/her kids.

    Yes education is important, but that will take time, as a matter of urgency for our economy right now, we need to drastically reduce the costs of doing business in PNG.

    So what is best for the PNG People? I’d say giving them all the tools to be able to go about their business interests today, because it is the hundreds of SME’s in towns and villages who can make a real impact on the economy.

  5. Emmanuel,

    Why do we need to drastically reduce the costs of doing business in PNG? So we can attract more foreign investment? So the 15% of PNGeans who live in urban centres and who own and operate the lions’ share of SMEs can save costs and make more Kina?

    What does that really solve – if anything? It definitely does not solve poverty.

    Improving infrastructure in order to reduce the costs of doing business in PNG directly helps 15% of our population. That’s great. BUT – wait, hold on – what about the OTHER 85%?

    Oh yes – the spin off benefits. We’ll build good roads so they can get to the markets cheaply and pay for their school fees. Who gets to say that 15% of the population deserve better infrastructure than the other 85%?

    Have a look at the businesses currently dominating PNG’s economy? What industries do they belong to – mining, petroleum and energy. PNG doesn’t need to reduce the cost of business to entice these multinationals into the country. It’s a matter of supply and demand – our resources aren’t going anywhere, they’re stuck on and under OUR land in OUR country

    It doesn’t matter how HIGH the cost of business is in PNG – there’s ALWAYS going to multinational firms out there who are willing to incur high operational costs so they can have oil and gas to secure their home country’s economic future. And as global demand outstrips global supply – my goodness, multinationals will be willing to do anything as long as they get the oil/LNG.

    What you suggest in the above comment will INCREASE the already widening gap between 15% rich people and 85% poor people. And another point here – why does everybody always assume that the main way PNG villagers can make money is if they get to the markets and sell their produce? That is a fallacy reflective of a short-sightedness that is crippling PNG as a country.

    Yes education takes time, and YES it is important.

    The REAL urgency for our economy right now is NOT to drastically reduce the costs of doing business in PNG – but to empower the people through education.

    An educated workforce means a productive country – not the other way around.

    Tavurvur

    Well – it increases the

  6. Sorry, I’m probably confusing the discussion here. The crux of what I’m saying is that infrastructure needs to be invested in, primarily for the formal economy but also for the villages, but I’ll get to that below. Sure this may make it easier for foreign investment, but at the same time it allows us PNG SME’s to be competitive against the outside world. Why should our SME’s suffer from high costs while foreign companies elbow us out because of larger budgets. That’s globalisation and we can’t turn back the clock, so I’d like to have all the tools to be competitive against outside companies. A perfect example is the improvement in mobile communications and competitive rates.

    In terms of PNG villagers, don’t underestimate them and think that the gap will be widened. There are so many village millionaires its not funny, they just don’t spend their time in cities that’s all. The reason why I say the main way PNG villagers can make money is to get to markets is because that has been my experience with both my villages from my fathers side in Wewak and my mothers side in Morobe (not Lae). All my cousins and uncles and aunties want is a way to make money and they do that by selling what they grow. It is through this money that they use to pay for their children’s education, and these are the educated children that have a chance of getting into National High Schools and eventually Universities if possible.

    I’ve argued for priorities to be skewed this way because we can talk about education all we want, but if parents today don’t have the money to pay for school fee’s for the best education they can get, then we won’t have a sustainable way of empowering people through education and hence no productive country.

  7. You know what would really be interesting E – if somebody could get a copy of the evaluation report (if it does exist) of the success of Ipatas’ Free Education Policy.

    I’d love to read that evaluation report!

  8. Thanks Tavurvur.

    I agree with you that education is the key to unlocking human potential.

    But I don’t know if formal education actually increases people’s inquisitive abilities. What I know is that all human beings are capable of reasoning and deduction. Simply put, all of us are capable of applying common sense regardless.

    What makes us, the 15% or so, privileged people different from our people in the villages is our greater exposure to the ‘outside world’.

    But that is not my point. My point is that the authorities need to move swiftly to get the appropriate infrastructure and policies in place to allow us to capitalise on the gains that will arise from our LNG and other resource projects. If they are not doing it, then what are we, the 15%, doing to push them to do it?

    Ideally, we should be going down the path similar to United Arab Emirates who are taking their money from Oil and investing heavily in tourism. Their oil wells will dry up one day, but tourists will keep flocking to UAE for centuries to come to see some of the wonders they’ve created such a making islands in the middle of oceans. Simple philosophy but makes a lot of sense.

    Cheers
    David

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