Questions still need logical answers

Editorial, Normal

The National, Tuesday January 19th, 2016

 THE agriculture and livestock minister has accused The National of having misrepresented the vegetable import permit issue just as we could – but have not – accused him of misusing his office to promote his own interests and his cronies.

Unless Tommy Tomscoll can offer evidence to support his claim, it remains nothing more than an emotional outburst in reaction to the ever-increasing opposition to his decision to give exclusive rights to one company to import vegetables.

Supermarkets have complained that they have also applied for the permit in November but Tomscoll said last week that they would not be approved as they are not a “special case”.

The Independent Consumer and Competition Council, the Lae Chamber of Commerce, Transparency International (PNGP, the PNG Manufacturing Council, and the Port Moresby Chamber of Commerce have all voiced concern over the monopoly given to Gryph Holdings Ltd, a company with no previous experience of importing fresh vegetables.

Is the minister suggesting that The National has coerced these organisations into opposing his decision?

That is an insult to the organisations.

Scores of people surveyed by The National have also decried the minister’s decision.

On Sunday, former law minister Kerenga Kua even suggested that Tomcoll is practicing discrimination by rejecting applications.

Most of them support the ban it is truly intended to promote the local agriculture sector but they also point out that there are several other major issues that need to be tackled if it is to have any real effect.

First and foremost is the need for better infrastructure to enable the farmers to get their produce to the markets early enough before they start rotting.

As it is, most vegetables are flown to the urban centres, making them, in the words of PNG Youth Link chief executive Steven Kilage, the most expensive in the world.

And contrary to Tomscoll’s claims, local producers will not be able to fill the vacuum created by the ban for months, if not years.

This statement came from the manager of Anitua supermarket on Lihir Island.

Joe Toliman pointed out that supermarkets like his buy most of their produce from overseas.

“The problem always in PNG is not lack of supply. It’s simply lack of government support for local farmers in supply chain management and facilities and logistics,” said Samson Komati, chairman of the Western Highlands Development Forum.

“Our people have been farmers for thousands of years. We have soil fertility that’s second to none anywhere in the world and all-year agriculture friendly tropical climate. 

“Our farmers need government funding, policies and support to make sure the supply chain issues are all adequately met in order to see our people access the K2.5 billion market in PNG. That will be the biggest step forward for poverty alleviation in PNG’s fight to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals.

“We need holistic approaches. Not band aid solutions like the one engineered by the agriculture minister which looks fishy, shortsighted, unplanned, unstrategic, and lacks vision.”

Tomscoll has claimed that even though Gryph Holdings is the only company allowed to import fresh vegetables into PNG, it is not a monopoly.

The ICCC and the chambers of commerce say it is.

Three years ago, a company applied to import rice and wanted at least two concessions: a 20-year tax holiday and an 80 per cent tax on other imports.

Tomscoll rejected the request from Naima Investments saying that “a monopoly is not good for an open economy like PNG where we are encouraging free trade”.

“We are deregulating many of our industries and laws to allow the market to function in terms of supply and demand and the price,” he said.

He went on to say that if the market had only one or a few suppliers, consumers would not have a choice and prices could be controlled.

Clearly, Tomscoll has changed his understanding of what makes a monopoly.

And clearly, he now finds it acceptable to allow one company to control a trade that is worth millions of kina a year.

In 2014-15, Australia exported almost 1400 tonnes of onions to PNG and at K19 a kg from the supermarkets, it would amount to more than K26 million.

That is just for onions.

Tomscoll has varied the ban to allow for the import of capsicum and tomatoes as well – all by Gryph Holdings only.

When the ban was announced on Aug 11 last year, the Australian Department of Agriculture said: “Australia has been a safe and reliable supplier of fresh produce to PNG for a number of years without biosecurity issues. 

“The Department of Agriculture is talking with its PNG counterparts to have the bans removed as soon as possible.”

Can Tomscoll tell the public what has been discussed so far?

Can he tell us the reasons for the sudden concern over pests and diseases?

More so over imports from a country that we know has very strict controls to protect its agriculture industry?

There are so many questions that require answers, the kind of answers which would not defy logic and common sense.

Fed up with Tomscoll’s controversial decisions, the Port Moresby Chamber of Commerce has urged the prime minister to wield 

the big bat and sack the minister.

It is a serious call but the minister’s decisions can seriously impact on the fate – and confidence –of businesses with questionable decisions.

Purchasing managers who make poor decisions face the same consequence.

We leave with one final question; why is Gryph Holdings remaining silent throughout all this?

Our calls to the phone numbers given have gone unanswered. How are we going to make an order of onions?