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Accuses opposition of misleading public about beche-de-mer

HONIARA, Solomon Islands (Solomon Star, Jan. 5, 2011) – In Solomon Islands, the Finance Minister, Gordon Darcy Lilo, has called on the Opposition Leader, Steve Abana, to apologize to Cabinet for calling it stupid based on what Minister Lilo described as disinformation on the beche-der-mer issue manufactured by the Opposition and its supporters to discredit the National Coalition for Reform and Advancement (NCRA) Government.

[PIR editor’s note: The beche-de-mer issue relates to the 160 bags of illegally harvested beche-de-mer that were confiscated by the Ministry of Fisheries late December last year from an Asian who was in the process of exporting them. The decision was made to allow the sea cucumber to be exported after a fine was paid.]

In a press statement, Mr. Lilo says he believes the Opposition and its supporters have deliberately inflated the value of the beche-der-mer in question to SB$4 million [US$500,000] to create maximum political capital, when the real value of the beche-der-mer as assessed by the Ministry of Fisheries on the December 17, 2010 was only SB$497,446.80 [US461,000].

"A second assessment undertaken by the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources on the December 22, 2010 determined the value of the beche-der-mer at SB$336,000 [US$41,000] and this is nowhere near the SB$4 million [US$500,000] claimed by the Opposition and its supporters. These are information contained in official documents that can be accessed by anyone including the Opposition and the media."

He said that it was an act of irresponsibility for Mr. Abana to try and mislead the public by implying that the Cabinet decision on the matter had interfered with a criminal investigation being carried out by the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) Office.

"You can all cross check with the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Office of the DPP who will tell you that there has never been any criminal investigation by the Prosecution Office into the matter. The Attorney General’s Office did not advice the Ministry to initiate such criminal investigations and the Ministry has never requested such criminal investigations, Mr. Lilo said. As a matter of fact, based on a full report on the matter provided by the Ministry, the Attorney General’s Office advised the former Fisheries Minister under the Coalition for National Unity and Rural Advancement (CNURA) Government Severino Nuaiasi to exercise his powers under the Fisheries Act and to act on behalf of the state of Solomon Islands by compounding the two charges against the company and imposing the maximum fine under the Fisheries Act of SB$100,000 [US$12,000] for each of the two breaches. What Minister Nuaiasi had done and what I had done as Acting Fisheries Minister had always been consistent with the law and in line with the advice provided to the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, by the Attorney General’s Chambers," Mr. Lilo said.

Minister Lilo revealed and provided supporting official documents to the media, that he originally signed an order on the November 16, 2010 for the company to pay 40 percent on Freight on Board (FOB) of the proceeds as tax to the Government, on top of the SB$200,000 [US$24,000] fine imposed by the former CNURA Government Fisheries Minister, Mr. Nuaiasi.

"The company subsequently appealed for leniency on the basis that the value of the beche-der-mer was SB$336,000 [US$41,000] and the value of a 40 percent FOB tax would involve a tax deduction of SB$134,400 [US$16,000] and when you add that to the SB$200,000 [US$24,000] fine with that, it leaves the company with only SB$1,600 [US$200] if it were to sell the beche-der-mer. These were reasonable factors for mitigation and as acting Fisheries Minister then; I took that submission into consideration and after two weeks and with consultation with officials of the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources, I decided that there was a fair case for me to reduce the tax rate which I had imposed from 40 percent to 20 percent FOB. I also took into consideration the fact that the normal tax rate on such export under the Customs Tariffs is only 10 percent Freight on Board, and apart from the US$200,000 [US$24,000] fine and the 20 percent FOB tax on the proceeds the company is still obliged under our laws to make other statutory deductions such as Pay-as-you-earn and National Provident Fund."

The finance Minister said that when he referred the matter to Cabinet, his action was consistent with what is expected of all Government Ministers which was to inform, advice, and liaise with Cabinet on all matters pertaining to their responsibilities as Ministers of the crown.

"In this case, when I became the Acting Fisheries Minister, there was a pending appeal from the company for leniency in relation to the SB$200,000 [US$24,000] imposed by former Minister Severino Nuaiasi.

"There were no other powers in the Fisheries Act for me to act upon the request so I took the matter to Cabinet. Cabinet did not waive the SB$200,000 [US$24,000] fine imposed by Minister Nuaiasi as implied by Mr. Abana, but rather it (Cabinet) upheld the decision taken by the former Minister. The decision by Cabinet to allow the company to sell the products was a decision based purely on the circumstances surrounding this case and should have no bearing on any future cases as all other future cases will most likely be different and they will have to be considered on their own circumstances, their own merits or demerits."

He reiterated his call for the Opposition Leader Steve Abana to apologize to Cabinet for showing total disrespect to the Executive Government established under the National Constitution by resorting to the use of inappropriate words to accuse Cabinet based on total disinformation manufactured by the Opposition itself and its supporters.

"As a responsible Executive Government we would refrain from using such childish outbursts purely for political reasons."

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