This Is Not a Theme Park


This is the last in a three-part series. To read the first two articles click here and here.

There are chickens scratching in the dirt, the occasional goat or pig, and even a mock feast for the village chief. Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers who are about to be deployed on overseas missions now get a simulated Pacific Island experience thanks to the purpose-built, $2.8 million complex at the Majura training facility outside of Canberra.

The complex is a replica of an imagined township somewhere in the Pacific Islands, complete with palm trees and thatched roofs. Members of the AFP’s International Deployment Group (IDG) spend 35 days in the simulated village prior to deployment, during which they learn about cultural differences and life without modern facilities in a scenario-based training program.


Facing a storm of criticism for the conduct of its officers in the Solomon Islands and East Timor in particular, the AFP has been forced to significantly re-evaluate its approach to offshore policing over the past three years not just on the ground, but also in its role as what AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty has referred to as the ‘deployable arm of Australian Government policy.’

As the IDG recruits to reach its target of 1200 officers by June next year, it is not only battling with an existing shortage of police in Australia but also finding that it requires a diverse range of skills that go beyond those found in your average police officer.

‘Police by and large are trained to be police, not to be teachers or trainers, and clearly that has posed some problems, and meant some changes to training and selection,’ says Andrew Goldsmith, author of Policing the Neighbourhood. ‘A police officer from Belconnen is not necessarily naturally well prepared to do capacity development [or training the locals]in Baucau, East Timor.’

‘There is clear evidence that the IDG has learnt a lot in the last three years and has modified its curriculum to try and tackle [issues such as local language training and cultural awareness],’ says Goldsmith, but ‘they are very difficult issues to tackle in a short framework like a two or three-week – or even a month-long – training course.’

When I interviewed IDG Manager Commander Mark Walters he was keen to reiterate that the IDG was continually reviewing its training program and had made some significant improvements. ‘We don’t assume we have everything right all of the time,’ he told me.

But beyond the extension of predeployment training this year from 12 to 35 days, Walters was unwilling or unable to go into specifics. He told me that the IDG sees ‘cultural awareness as a very important issue,’ and that local language training for officers was ‘something we’ve been focused on quite a bit in the last 12 to 18 months.’ But when questioned on what that meant in real terms, he admitted that predeployment training is generic, not country specific, and that ‘the actual acculturation occurs inside a country itself.’ Language training for the Solomon Islands, for example, ‘is not actually broken down into a period of time where you learn Pijin – where the Pijin does get picked up is in the Solomons.’

I made a number of follow up calls and asked for more details but none were forthcoming. No information could be given on the third-party groups who provide cultural training at the Majura facility.

In fact, sources in the Solomon Islands gave more concrete examples of what has changed in the past 12 months.

Dorothy Wickham. Photo by the author

According to Dorothy Wickham, a journalist with local Solomons TV service One News Ltd, RAMSI’s Participating Police Force (comprised mostly of AFP officers) has noticeably shifted tactics since it attracted widespread criticism over a number of police operations late last year that smacked of political interference.

Appearances are important, Wickham told me when I met her in October last year, and the PPF’s increasingly audacious actions (such as the arrest of a Government Minister and a raid on the PM’s office conducted by foreign police officers) were sending the wrong message to Solomon Islanders.

But things have changed in the past year, Wickham says. ‘There’s been a very big shift towards putting the Pacific Islands police officers to the front. There’s an awareness at the top level of RAMSI that it’s just good PR.’

‘There is also more of an understanding at the top level of AFP that there has to be more cultural awareness among officers that come in, and their induction on this end is pretty good now too.’

‘I also think the selection of police officers has changed. There’s a different calibre of people coming in now. I think they actively look for people who can work with different ethnic groupings who may come from a community in Australia that has contact with Islanders, or Aborigines, or whatever ethnic groupings it is. It shows in their behaviour and the way that they’ve been able to adjust to this situation.’

Wickham admitted that she was also being more careful in her criticisms of RAMSI these days because she did not want them to be used by the Solomon Islands Government in their campaign to lessen RAMSI’s influence in the country – often for self-serving purposes. ‘Because of the political atmosphere between Australia and the Solomon Islands now, I think sometimes we need to be careful about how we criticise because of the way politicians are using these criticisms to get what they want out of the situation,’ she said.

As other Pacific Islands leaders gather today in Tonga for the meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), Solomons PM Manasseh Sogavare has boycotted the meeting to spend time with the Prime Minister of Taiwan, another country jostling for influence in the Pacific.

Sogavare’s snub is over a Forum-led review of RAMSI that has not gone to his liking. He wants to review the Act of Parliament that allowed RAMSI into the country, and claims that Australia is pressuring other Forum member countries to prevent him from doing this.

Sogavare was the star attraction at last year’s PIF as he railed against Australia’s influence in his country. And while the PM is no angel himself, he has a point: Australia has used its influence through a police presence to exercise political control over the Solomons Government.

The infamous Solomons Attorney-General-on-the-run, Julian Moti, is a key case in point. It may well be that Moti is an inappropriate choice for Attorney General and should face charges as a child sex offender. But for Australia to use the Australian and Solomons criminal justice systems to attempt to derail the Solomons Government’s sovereign decision to appoint him to the post is highly contentious and is a pointer to why the Australian Government has chosen the police – and not the military or an aid agency – as its ‘deployable arm’ in the Pacific.

Last year, in an address to the National Press Club, AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty spoke about a shift in the AFP’s role from impartial police force to key player in the political process. Keelty was disarmingly honest in acknowledging that the AFP was being challenged in its traditional, apolitical role under the Westminster system. ‘In my view we need to adjust our thinking about the separation of powers to the degree that we retain impartiality, and we remain apolitical, but at the same time deliver on the Government’s needs and expectations in regard to foreign policy,’ he said.

‘A defence force can be, and is, deployed by government without necessarily affecting its apolitical standing, but taking on these new roles for us means weaving a course through the politics in order to keep our apolitical character.’

Keelty also lauded the Howard Government’s establishment of the National Security Committee of Cabinet, which had enabled a direct line between the head of police and the inner Executive. ‘I can only speak from experience and observe that for me as Commissioner, this has been a very effective way to deal with policy making,’ he said.

There can be no doubt that the role of the Australian Federal Police is changing – they are better armed and better funded than they have ever been, and they are positioning themselves as the regional peacekeeping force. But are they right organisation for the job?

‘While one can find fault with some of the strategic choices and operational rollouts," says Andrew Goldsmith, "the contextual difficulty of what is being asked of the IDG, and indeed the AFP more generally, also has to be put into the balance.’

‘I’m interested in the question of whether we should be doing it at all, but having accepted the realpolitik that this is the path Australia is taking, then the question becomes: are we making things worse? Are we doing more harm than we’re resolving?

‘The answer is we’re doing harm and we’re doing good.’

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.