A Spinner's Wicket in Honiara


As New Matilda goes live, it appears that the only recently sworn-in Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Snyder Rini, has resigned ahead of a no-confidence vote in Parliament he was expected to lose. I’m not sure what happened overnight but all the remaining shops in Honiara were closed this morning and all the ships at anchor off Ranadi beach had disappeared by daylight.

Rini’s announcement was greeted by motorists blaring their horns in town and reports of ‘rejoicing in the streets.’

The crowd outside Parliament House in Honiara last Tuesday was also pretty happy until the Governor-General, Sir Nathaniel Waena, emerged and introduced Rini as the Prime Minister-elect. Rini tried to speak but was shouted down as people gave vent to their unhappiness a feeling shared by many throughout the country who saw no good in continuing the kind of government that took over after the coup of June 2000.

Back then, Manasseh Sogavare became the coup-makers’ Prime Minister and Sir Allan Kemakeza was one of his Ministers. They tried to extend their parliamentary term but were stopped by a nationwide public outcry. Then in December 2001, Kemakeza became Prime Minister with Rini as his Deputy.

Local Police take cover.

On Tuesday, Rini was Prime Minister and Kemakeza was in his team the same old crew again!

On Wednesday afternoon, Toni Hassan, from ABC Radio, seemed surprised when I implied that the Regional Assistance Mission of the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) had not been a total success. I was astonished that Australians had no idea. A friend from Australia emailed, thanking me for my candour and suggesting that the Australian public was the victim of ‘spin.’

Well, Shane Warne step aside! Spinners work here for the Australian and Solomon Islands Governments (SIG), delivering us ‘spun’ news about ourselves and about events in Australia, so that we know more about what’s happening in Iran, Iraq and Nepal than in our neighbouring islands. The spinners are attached to the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) and the Solomon Star newspaper, and they even work in the Prime Minister’s office.

All these positions are funded by the Australian taxpayer, so I hope you are getting quality spin!

RAMSI ‘spin’ is all about risk management. Rather than allow the media free rein to interpret and report as they see fit, external journalists and programmers are employed as ‘advisors.’ Other risk management devices include the granting of jobs to private contractors, ensuring no blame is passed on if things go wrong. In this way, if any difficulties are encountered, the donor government isn’t blamed. It is good management but it means staff are constantly in self-protection mode. Few creative initiatives are ventured and changes that are proposed are conservative, slow and incremental.

The result? RAMSI (read ‘Australian Government’) gets a clean bill of health in relation to its intervention, its anti al-Qaeda security blanket, and the disbursement of taxpayers’ funds.

By and large, the events in Honiara last week have not been replicated in any other of our nearly 800 populated islands. There are reports from nearby Auki on Malaita that police put down a disturbance; that a number of houses were burned down at Red Beach outside Honiara; and that SID$6 million worth of copra was set on fire at a plantation at Yandina in the Russell Islands.

But the majority of Solomon Islanders continue to live as they have for the past 27 years of independence with little information and even less understanding of what their political leaders are doing. They are peaceful, but ill-equipped to recognise the violence now being done to them.

What violence? A story by Rory Callinan, ‘Generation Exploited,’ in TIME (South Pacific) on March 19 (link: http://www.time.com/time/pacific/magazine/article/0,13673,503060327-1174745,00.html) has revealed the extent to which our young people many underage have been sexually exploited, and how parents, politicians and police seem powerless to help. UNICEF’s investigation, on which the TIME report draws, was conducted in 2004. The authorities were obviously not interested. The document has never been released in the Solomons, but leaked in Australia.

I know many parents in Honiara breathed a sigh of relief when the casino was torched in the riots. However, we await with dread new developments because it is an open secret in Honiara that one of Rini’s backers was expecting to be granted a casino license.

But we cannot expect too much of a Government headed by Snyder Rini that has announced it will continue the policies of the previous Kemakeza Government. Their main concerns are the macro statistics. Their advisors all want their CVs to look good. They will not want to be bothered with the small details.

The elections on 5 April were organised by the Solomon Islands Electoral Commission with advice and support from the Australian Electoral Commission. Calls for a different voting system were all but ignored the only change being that voters placed their ballots in a single box instead of a box for each candidate. ‘She’ll be right. We have the same system in Australia, mate!’ Well, yes, but the Solomons is not exactly a metropolitan country. That the exigencies, the context and educational levels here were very different didn’t seem to faze anyone.

For example, there were no changes to electoral regulations to preclude the use of public funds by sitting members who then used Taiwanese funds unashamedly to secure re-election. This was officially aid from the Republic of China to SIG, and was budgeted for MPs to use as Rural Constituency Development Funds (RCDF) or micro-grants for communities. Few MPs use these funds other than selectively to ensure their re-election. These funds have not been audited since 2000, according to the Auditor-General’s office.

The citizens of the Solomon Islands know that this new government, like the previous one, is born out of chaos and few people hold out any hope of proper governance. Many know that former Prime Minister Bart Ulufa’alu (ousted in the coup of June 2000, for which no one has yet been brought to justice) has a better, if dated, understanding of economic issues than either Rini or Kemakeza who have no choice but to accept advice from Canberra-based economists with little experience in island economies.

RAMSI hotel raid looking for Solomon Islands MP.
ABC’s Sean Dorney is the journo. When they couldn’t
kick the door in, they got the master key!

The result has been described as ‘trickle down economics.’ And yes, in the past couple of years, Honiara has been awash with cash. People with an extra house or two are doing very well as rentals have sky-rocketed because of demand from RAMSI, UN, and other agency staff.

But it is clear that the trickle has not yet reached many villages outside Honiara. After last week, you’d have to be very optimistic to believe the trickle will reach them any time soon.

What is urgently needed in the Solomon Islands is for RAMSI to help our Government to attend to the people first. It is they, after all, who own the resources, are themselves resources, and are the primary actors in economic development.

And even the macro statistics that RAMSI and the Government seem so focused on would probably look better if people felt an improvement in the quality of life after three years of ‘law and order’ and ‘good governance.’

Even before the riots, it was difficult to see improvements in Honiara where thousands of young rural people have flocked to find jobs, where septic tanks are leaking, sewerage outlets into the sea have broken near the shoreline, and garbage is everywhere. The decayed infrastructure parallels people’s sense of decadence in government

And in the village communities, you know you have big problems when you see signs of malnutrition, when people are so desperate they sell their votes for a bag of rice or for SID$50 (AUD$5) cash, when people help loggers cut down and export their last remaining trees, when whole families are in dispute over timber rights. These issues have caused a crisis in leadership in the villages. That crisis radiates into provincial assemblies and into parliament and the vicious cycle begins again.

The only upside to the fires that destroyed much of Chinatown last week is that they focused attention on some of the real problems here. RAMSI might now consider it useful to call on the United Nations to share its considerable experience.

With Rini gone for the moment, Parliament needs to do some soul searching before it polarises the country. The lawmakers now will have to vote in a secret ballot for a replacement to Rini. As just reported on CNN, Government spokesman Johnson Honimae said nominations for PM could start to be lodged later today (Wednesday, 26 April), but no vote was expected before next week.

And the spinners should hold off.

We can’t go on like this.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.