24 Sep 2013

TI in Vanuatu says 50-year contract on airport deal a serious concern

4:47 pm on 24 September 2013

Transparency International in Vanuatu says there are several aspects of the government's plans for airport development that are concerning.

The government has plans for a huge new airport on Efate and upgrades in other provinces, with the same company going on to operate them.

TIV's president Marie-Noelle Ferrieux-Patterson says the prospect of the company getting a 50-year contract is a major worry.

MARIE-NOELLE FERRIEUX-PATTERSON: Vanuatu has gone through similar types of contracts in the past with electricity, with water, and every time it has been a problem, because you don't contract any of your countries activities or assets for a period of 50 years without having a serious discussion with all the parties concerned, all the stakeholders. And that was not done. So whether it's a good or bad project, I think from the beginning the [Indistinct] and nothing has been able to remove it at this stage. Also the talk that the Singapore company that has signed the agreement that no-one has seen has been pretending to be associated with different major groups. And when these major groups were contacted they were not aware of that commitment. So it looks more like maybe a company has got a commitment from the government and that they are not involved themselves in airport construction and would be basically selling that project to someone. Again, we were finding, when I was ombudsman, some kind of bank guarantee system where people sign bank guarantees or sign different commitments, because that agreement was also a guarantee from the government that they could sell that to someone and assign that to someone and it would be money-making for some people.

DON WISEMAN: As it's understood, there is a promissory note that would effectively underwrite the project.

MARIE-NOELLE FERRIEUX-PATTERSON: That's what they've been saying. Not automatically underwrite the project, but commit to basically pay damages to the company doing it if ever they were interrupted in doing the work of the airport in their 50-year contract then basically the Vanuatu government would have to pay a lot of money to them. We have been going through the same thing with the cable company, the internet cable company at the moment, but that even went further. And we haven't talked too much about it, but that's also an area we need to totally investigate at the moment. Because in this case the cable business was sold to the Vanuatu government and the provident fund. Again, these deals are being done and no-one is talking about it. We're not aware of a visibility study. For the airport, the interesting part, and I think that's why at the moment everyone is a little bit waiting, is that the Opposition has basically put a judicial review case against the government on the basis of that original agreement, on the basis of the constitutional requirement, asking for the public good on doing the due diligence and all these kinds of aspects of the work that they haven't done. And the chief justice has looked at it and said that there was case to answer. So information is going to come out. The project, we understand, is frozen at the moment - the guaranteeing part of it - so hopefully everything is going to come out through that case. And then if there is anything that can be stopped, if it is not good for the public it will be done. We need an airport in Vanuatu. There is no doubt that we have been discussing for years what is coming first - the hotel development, the airport, so we are turning around in a circle, what comes first, but that doesn't stop all the good process of due diligence, the public procurement aspect that should be respected. And if it is not, then you automatically become suspicious because, who was paid to do that so quickly?