It’s no secret that under the Howard Government, relations with the Pacific were strained. Alexander Downer has done almost as much harm to Pacific-Australia relations as Manasseh Sogavare has done to sour those between Solomon Islands and Australia.
Solomon Islanders expect to have a new government in place before the new year, if our Governor General does his job properly. When that happens, we will be able to realign our Government’s posture to reflect the warmth of appreciation for the assistance that Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific nations have given us in our time of need.
But if relations are to improve, the new Australian Government will have to do its part too. For a start, the new Foreign Minister cannot continue the Downer tradition of partisan political commentry on all Pacific Island affairs. It is not being ‘weak’ and ‘compliant’ to respect the sovereignty of one’s neighbours unless of course one wants to be the neighbourhood bully or rabble rouser.
It would be helpful for the Rudd Government to appoint a Minister or Parliamentary Secretary to look after Pacific Island affairs. The last Labor government had one in Gordon Bilney. What’s needed is a cool diplomatic type who doesn’t romanticise. Our realities are harsh, especially with global warming and its impact on low lying atolls and islands, and our susceptibility to global economic upheavals.
Relations with the Pacific took a nose-dive during Downer’s tenure as Foreign Minister
Canberra should modify the position of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) to make it part of mainstream SI Government instead of being as we see it here a parallel government with more visibility, resources and pay! The special coordinator of RAMSI should occupy an office close to the Cabinet Secretary. Every RAMSI initiative (non security) should, upon being mooted, be the subject of a paper to the Minister and Cabinet, if only to keep ministers informed. We might even ask the Minister for RAMSI Affairs to present a report to each Parliament sitting. I doubt this would work successfully if the Sogavare group remains in power.
The involvement of the Australia Federal Police (AFP) in RAMSI should be seriously reconsidered. While the presence has been very useful for the restoration of law and order, there have been too many failed investigations and prosecutions and a lot of criminals are running free because of bungled investigations. It was only close to mid-2007 that local police and Pacific Island RAMSI police were allowed to carry out investigations and prosecutions. I was told this by a RAMSI civilian appointee from Australia who was appalled when he found this out.
I realise Australia might require an AFP presence here for its own and regional security purposes. If so, then the AFP should be separated from the RAMSI mission and allowed to carry out its anti-terrorism and drug surveillance work. State police from regional Australia, with experience in community policing, would be welcome to help the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force.
Education was a prominent issue in the Australian Federal election and it is critical for us too. Our young people need to be well educated to be able to break free from the shackles of dependence. But we have an ongoing crisis of quality and access which could be ameliorated somewhat by Australia taking several hundred students each year to study in Australian high schools for year 11 and 12. This would bring about at least three benefits: it would position those students well for tertiary studies; expand the worldview of more young Solomon Islanders as they study in a stable economy in which the user pays; and create more person-to-person interaction in an open and healthy environment which would lead to a better understanding between our two countries.
Such a program would also free up places for children who otherwise have to be culled from the system at year 11 for lack of places. We may not help all of them, but we will have reduced the number of young people leaving school and trying to live in an adult world at age 16.
Lastly, because a private company employs all RAMSI personnel, many who come to work here have commercial as well as professional motives including wanting extensions of contracts (I have worked overseas too!). It’s called ‘capital formation’ and of course there is nothing wrong with it and is to be encouraged. Here, however, it doesn’t help with local capacity building. The result is that Solomon Island professionals often feel shoved aside and considered incapable. It breeds resentment and a hardening of attitudes and Operation ‘helpem fren’ (helping friends) is perceived to be ‘helpen seleva’ (helping yourself). It is now at the point where resentful public servants and influential people are taking side against the opposition, branding them as being pro-Australia. There is a strange belief among a growing group in Honiara that Australia wants to take over the Solomon Islands.
I believe all the other forms of assistance the Australian and other governments have provided have been crucial to keeping this country viable especially the health program, assistance in the law and justice sector and having the military here to back up police. When a bunch of louts gave police in Malu’u (North Malaita) a hard time recently, a platoon of Royal Tongan Marines dusted them up and handed them in, without resorting to guns, and the matter was defused successfully soon after. This is just what we need. Funnily enough members of another unit from the same platoon were found by their senior officers to be guilty of too much ‘socialising’ with the locals in another community and reprimanded. I would promote them all of them!
The scope for improved relations between our two countries is great. We have all learned a lot from these first four years of RAMSI and with some adjustments and refinements things can and should improve. I hope that Kevin Rudd and his new Foreign Minister will recognise and acknowledge publicly that it was civil society in the Solomon Islands that prompted our then PM, Allan Kemakeza, to seek intervention when he did. Most of us kept up the pressure in the media. A handful of uncivil ones I believe were ready to shoot him.
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