News Item

"Now We Must" - Keynote speech by Mr. Jay Bartlett, Chairman of Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry

News 7 Jun 2019

New Zealand Delegation including esteemed Members of Parliament, Pasifika and Business delegates, Chamber of Commerce representatives, YECSI Chairperson and Youth representatives, friends, colleagues and media, my Pacific Islands brothers and sisters.

Welcome Remarks

First and foremost thank you for this opportunity to say a few short remarks on behalf of the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce. On behalf of our board, Secretariat and membership, I would like to extend a warm welcome to you all today, I am also pleased to see some friends and familiar faces amongst the business delegates.

As many of you will know, the success in the Pacific is fundamentally built and underpinned by partnerships and beneficial relationships. In that regard for the Chamber of Commerce to partner with the Pacific Mission this morning I trust is a wonderful opportunity. The chamber represents the voice of business and plays a key role in harmonizing, advocating and elevating issues of key concern. Beyond our mandated role and corporate imperatives, the Solomon Islands Chamber is more than that - we represent an emerging cohort in leadership, thinking and innovation, political and business landscape. Bridging both the inter-generational leadership intermission and reshaping undervalued cohesion that exists between Government and Business are what we are most focused on, and to see the Pacific Mission consist of both business leaders and high-level government officials is extremely encouraging.

Strategic Considerations

To understand and appreciate Solomon Islands I'd like to share an important era of our history.

The context of our discussions really for me begins with one of the greatest battles of the Pacific War in the early 1940s. In early April 1942 the Japanese had occupied Solomon Islands and were looking to capture Port Moresby, Tulagi and some of the Southern Solomon Islands to establish a base to support and consolidate future military advances. The base they wanted to establish needed to be a forward operating base and that was able to be used to establish a staging area where they could protect Japan's major base in Rabaul while cutting supply lines between the West Coast of the Americas and the East Coast of Australia populous.

The plan was to deploy 45 fighters and 60 bombers to provide air cover for Japanese Naval Forces advancing farther into the South Pacific with planned offensives against Fiji, New Caledonia and Samoa.

They needed a location that was central and strategic

Japanese Engineers surveyed a location for an airfield and code named it RXI. This location that could allow Japanese Aircraft to patrol the Shipping Lanes to Australia and the Eastern flank of New Guinea. Eventually construction of this airport was built by approximately 1200 men.

Just days before it was completed and operational, on August 7th, 1942 United States 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions landed and captured the airfield. History tells us it was captured with little resistance - possibly due to fact that the night before the construction workers were given extra sake for completing the airfield ahead of schedule.

RXI Airfield was code name for Lunnga Point or as we now more commonly know it Honiara International Airport located right here on Guadalcanal. The Japanese made several attempts to retake the airfield - 3 major land battles and 7 large naval battles - however they eventually abandoned their efforts to retake Guadalcanal and eventually evacuated.

The geo-strategic positioning of Guadalcanal from a military perspective was understood by these superpowers at the time and I tell that story because I still believe today that the advantage this country has in its strategic position in the 21st century is yet to be fully appreciated and capitalised.

It's important for me to illustrate this point because it is relatively easy to visit Solomon Islands and see the potholes, the annoying minibuses, the lack of facilities - and I believe these negative facades unfortunately obscure people's perception against the deep underlying vision we have for our country to be markedly better than these misfortunes. Solomon Islands is the new frontier relatively untapped and I believe great potential for success awaits those who have the time and same outlook as us.

State of the nation and economy

Solomon Islands today remains young.
As a country, our democracy is relatively young - we transitioned from European colonial rule after the decolonisation of Oceania commenced following the Second World War.

Our demographic is young

Solomon Islands along with Papua New Guinea have one of the youngest populations in the Pacific - like I always say while bigger, advanced economies are getting older, we are getting younger and sexier. The demographics of our current population has a large youth bulge - 70% under 34 with approximately 80% unemployment. These statistics of unemployed youth are seriously daunting and alarming.
It is important that we fully understand the population situation we face and the implications it poses for socio-economic growth and development. A recent accomplishments of the chamber in engaging our youth, saw the establishment of the Youth Entrepreneurship Council of Solomon Islands and I am glad to see that our Chairperson Millicent has an opportunity to say a few words in due course. They are extremely proactive in the youth space and do fantastic work.

Our Economy

Economy activity overall for the Solomon Islands is largely positive with 3.7 percent growth in 2018 and similar growth forecasts for 2019. Our national debt by international standards remains low - we actually have one of the lowest debts in the Pacific as a great base point. We also enjoy a safe and secure work environment and blessed with vast abundance of national resources, however our taxable economic base remains unsustainably narrow with the main current contributors being Forestry & Fisheries.

We have yet to be successful in diversifying our economy which remains vulnerable to external shocks in the global markets. Risk of uncontrollable fluctuations in commodity prices leaves us in a precarious position. This pace of economic growth cannot cater and will not sufficiently provide required services for our population.

This situation we find our self in is not unusual for small states with emerging economies such as ours. Especially one that is both geographically dispersed, socially diverse with a fast growing population.

Private Sector & Reform

To move forward we must be clear on what we what to achieve, how we want to achieve it and when it will be achieved.

The challenge before us is to urgently broaden our tax & economic base by focusing policy on the key sectors. We must boost productivity though infrastructure & educational investments. Undergo structural & Legislative reforms to improve governance & strengthen public services.

Our advocacy efforts are focused developing a better relationship with Government and to ensure that policy formation& conversation is informed and leads to an improved platform for business.

Challenges & Opportunities – Strategic Growth

To successfully develop new sustainable sectors will require both increased foreign & domestic investments. We need the fundamental building blocks to be in place as an investment pre-requisite. That is why unlocking land and partnering with our traditional landowners is fundamental to accelerate investment & capital these strategic sectors. Land reform remains one of our key reform priorities.

Rather than simply exporting our raw natural resources we must look for opportunities to add value as a means of creating – jobs and growth. Downstream processing must be encouraged and supported as a matter of importance.

The opening of Munda International Airport has been a important milestone and would not have been possible without the support of the New Zealand Government. Further planned investment in our domestic Airports and the formalizing of the Airport Corporation Limited is welcomed and are positive steps to improve the mobility and connectivity to grow the tourism industry. I would like to acknowledge the good work that the New Zealand Aid program funds especially in targeting investment that boost broader economic developments.

Agri-business opportunities for domestic & export markets will also provide growth that is inclusive, improve food security& resilience in the face of climate change. With 85% of the population living rurally and engaged in subsistence farming Agri-business has enormous potential from plantation forestry, meat to root crop production.

While some of our major infrastructure developments such as the Coral Sea Cable System, Tina hydro river & South Pacific Games are also forecasted to push up growth to 4.5% they will also provide opportunities in ICT & Construction. Cheaper Energy and Connectivity are much need developments we look forward to them coming on line and the positive multiplier effect they will have on the economy.

Before I close I would like to briefly touch on Governance. While there is an inherent need to improve our physical environment we also need to focus on institutional governance that can enhance our integrity and accountably. A lack of Good Governance Principles within the public& private sector will very quickly undermine all our development aspirations.

As a chamber we have now hosted a number a Directorship Programs delivered by the Institute of Directors New Zealand – this is one of the programs that I am really proud of.

This is a good example of a Partnership that has been successfully and I would welcome any opportunities for this to be further supported and strengthened. It still remains our ambition to one day establish a Institute of Directors Solomon Islands to deliver Governance training to Corporate, Business, Government and also tiered training for smaller organisations such as Schools, Church’s, Sports Clubs. Governance & principles of good governance must be encouraged across all spectrums of today’s society.

Conclusion

In closing and in summary, Ladies & Gentlemen, I wish to reiterate the following again.

1. We understand the advantage of our strategic positioning as a country and the unique opportunities we are yet to exploit to its fullest. 2. We acknowledge the importance to building improved working relations between our Policy makers and the business sectors especially addressing suppression of growth factors such as our current archaic Taxation regime. 3. We are mindful that our biggest risk being non economic participation of our young populous and efforts being made to have them not only involved but lead. 4. We must urgently build our economic base to an unprecedented level. Levels befitting the 21st century that must cater for our sustainable future in which unlocking land for development is central. 5. To manage all these affairs, it is imperative that our corporate governance culture, as businesses and as a country must reach international standards so that our endeavors, since our

independence, may now be achieved through proper transparent governance.

Lastly, we may only achieve all these by true partnerships that benefit all parties. Our countries have stood in steadfast partnership during the Battles on this soil and gained our liberation over a period of just a few months. These are now peace times, and over forty years, the battle for prosperity in our beloved country is ongoing, however we must be open once again to achieve the economic liberation for Solomon Islands together. Since our independence we have lived under the narrative that "YES WE CAN".....Forty years on given our status, we must now change not only the narrative but the attitude to "NOW WE MUST"

On this note I pay respect to the Pacific Mission Business team for your valuable time availed this morning for this breakfast and we look forward to many positive outcomes from this engagement. Please enjoy your stay in our Hapi Isles and on behalf of the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce I thank you again for your partnership for years past and for the many years to come.

Thank you.