PRIME Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo has secured 800 scholarships from the Papua New Guinea Government and a 20 million Kina budget support after bilateral meeting with his counterpart Peter O’Neil on Thursday in Port Moresby.
Mr Lilo who attended the Wednesday Special Pacific African, Caribbean and Pacific (PACP) Leaders’ Meeting participated in his first bilateral engagement with Mr O’Neil during which both leaders agreed to further deepen the relationship between the Melanesian neigbours.
He said he was very impressed by the outcome of the engagement as PNG had again showed its unwavering commitment to support Solomon Islands in a number of sectors.
He confirmed that Mr O’Neil had committed to sponsoring 800 students from Solomon Islands to study in various universities and tertiary institutions across Papua New Guinea.
Mr Lilo in accepting the offer assured the PNG leader that recipients of these scholarships will be fairly chosen from all the provinces in Solomon Islands.
Already, he said the Government is looking at shifting some of its sponsored students from the University of the South Pacific in Fiji to PNG universities especially those who undertake courses that are also offered by the PNG institutions.
The prime minister said PNG’s assistance in the tertiary education sector will significantly reduce the tertiary education bill which has continued to increase over the recent years.
Aside the offer to support the education sector, Mr Lilo and Mr O’Neil also agreed for PNG to contribute 20 million Kina as part of budget support for next year’s budget.
He said this is a significant injection of cash and that now places PNG as a member of the core economic working group.
Mr Lilo said the 20million Kina which translates into about $70 million will help Solomon Islands to effectively deliver public services to its people.
Also at the meeting, both leaders agreed to implement a visa-free work scheme to allow for the free movement of nationals from both sides to work in the Solomon Islands and PNG without having to acquire work permits as now practiced.
The discussion was believed to have also prompted other leaders to explore similar arrangements in the Pacific and it was anticipated to also send a clear message to Australia and New Zealand to be flexible with their work visas to Pacific Islanders.
Mr Lilo said the realisation of the proposal would greatly benefit Solomon Islanders to tap into the booming PNG market.
Under this proposed scheme Solomon Islanders can travel to PNG with their valid passports and work there without having to apply for a work permit.
The Prime Minister said he had also agreed with Mr O’Neil for his Government to help facilitate the return of Solomon Islands medical doctors now working in various parts of the country.
He said that this has come about after repeated calls for Solomon Islands to have its trained doctors return home after some of them were employed by the PNG Government after they completed their studies.
Meanwhile, Mr Lilo said that Solomon Islands and PNG officials will commence dialogue to establish formal understanding for a prospect of entering into a double taxation agreement by the two Melanesian states.
Both leaders also discussed ways to further improve border control between the two countries.
On PNG and Asia, Mr Lilo said that Solomon Islands appreciated the membership of PNG in the ASEAN which he hoped will bring spin-offs to the Solomon Islands economy.
According to Mr Lilo his engagement with PNG has been very fruitful and he was thankful to Mr O’Neil for his commitment to help Solomon Islands.
Commentators in PNG believe that the deepening bilateral relationship between two countries and the new shift in support is attributed to the two leaders’ personal relationship which was dated back to their university days at the University of Papua New Guinea.
PM Lilo and Mr O’Neil were class-mates at UPNG.
To further deepen their relationship, Mr O’Neil has already invited Mr Lilo to a state visit to PNG in February 2013 to be followed by visits by the Prime Minister of Fiji, Prime Minister of Australia and the President of Indonesia.
In another development Solomon Islands new high commissioner to Papua New Guinea William Haomae on Thursday presented his Letter of Introduction to Prime Minister O’Neil.