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Tuesday, 6 June 2000
Page: 17073

Mr BRERETON (2:01 PM) —My question is to the Prime Minister. Prime Minister, can you confirm that the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands wrote to you more than a month ago? Is it not a fact that he specifically sought from you a three-month contribution of Australian police personnel as part of a 50-person multinational group to work alongside Solomon Islands police in maintaining law and order? Was it not clear to your government that the Prime Minister was requesting police and not military assistance because he wanted a peaceful outcome before security broke down? Can you explain why, as of yesterday, no additional police assistance had arrived and your government was still considering what it might in fact do?

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —I thank the honourable member for Kingsford-Smith for his question, and I will take a few minutes to answer it and also provide the House with some further information regarding the situation which is unfolding in the Solomon Islands and include certain reports of clashes between the IFM and MEF earlier today. The reports of that, of course, are still coming in.

As I informed the House yesterday, the government—and, I am sure, all members of the House—are concerned about what has unfolded in the Solomon Islands. We are particularly concerned about reports late this morning of clashes between rival militant groups near Honiara. We are aware of the suggestions that have been made by the member for Kingsford-Smith and his leader about the role of the government, and I will come to the greater detail of that in a moment. Our objective in relation to this has always been to assist the Solomon Islands to deal with its own problems by peaceful and democratic means, without foreign interference. The problem is a longstanding ethnic one, involving the people from Guadalcanal and from Malaita, and this root cause has to be addressed if there is to be a permanent solution to the crisis. It is not simply a security issue.

Along with other countries in the region, Australia has done a very great deal since the crisis began over a year ago to this end. Indeed, no other country has made an equal or even comparable commitment. Australia's extensive assistance to the Solomon Islands government has included assistance to the government and the police both through our longstanding bilateral aid program, which is $17 million a year, and through direct assistance to the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force. We have provided $6 million over three years for ongoing training, restructuring and strengthening of the police force and the judicial system. We have also more than doubled the number of advisers on the ground. We have provided $710,000 for humanitarian relief for people displaced by the unrest. We have committed $800,000 to fund the Commonwealth police monitoring group comprising Fiji and Vanuatu police. Most importantly, we have been very actively assisting the Solomon Islands government to institute a peace process, including providing about $100,000 to support peace negotiations among the parties.

On 3 June, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Downer—following a meeting of the National Security Committee of Cabinet—despatched a team of officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Defence and the Australian Federal Police to make an assessment of the situation with a view to our supporting an increased Commonwealth police group in the Solomon Islands. That group is still in Honiara and in discussions with the high commission in relation to the crisis. It is true that the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands had called for armed and interventionist troops or police to put down the insurgency in Guadalcanal. That included a quite specific request for the deployment of Australian police to line positions in the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force. That matter was considered by the government, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs indicated to the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands that the government of Australia did not believe it was appropriate for us to respond to that request.

The request was not ignored. The request was directly addressed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in a discussion with the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands. The view was taken by the government—and I believe it to be a correct view—that it was not in our interest to put unarmed Australian police in the front line and at an unacceptable risk, particularly without any defined exit strategy. You do not willy-nilly commit the police of this country to a hostile situation without knowing what the exit strategy is. That may be the view of some who seek, with 20/20 hindsight, to make cheap political capital out of this issue, but that is not the considered response of the government. I think the government position was put very well on the AM program this morning by my colleague the member for Moore, who correctly described the statements made by the member for Denison as naive in the extreme.

We have been prepared to support the Commonwealth police group's essentially monitoring and confidence building role, but I do not believe that foreigners in line positions would be effective in resolving what is a long running and intractable domestic Solomon Islands political dispute. Australia has been supporting and will continue to support in many ways the peace process now under way, assisting the Solomon Islands government with advice and material support, and those affected by the dispute.

When being interviewed on an Australian radio program yesterday, the New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr Goff, speaking of course with the responsibility of government and not the cheap opportunism of opposition, had this to say—and I endorse what he had to say:

No country outside of the Solomons can control the situation. We can simply try to influence it. In the old days they could use gunboat diplomacy . That doesn't apply today. If we were to send in troops or Australia was to send in troops, we may end up simply being the meat in the sandwich.

Australia has acted correctly.

Mr Kerr —After the horse has bolted.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Denison!

Mr HOWARD —We have acted with a care for the safety and the security of all Australian personnel who may be required to expose themselves to danger. I do not think Australians appreciate the attempt by the opposition to make cheap political capital out of this issue. Six months ago this government was being criticised in the wake of East Timor by the Leader of the Opposition, by the member for Kingsford-Smith and by others for being too, as they described it, triumphal and insensitive in the wake of the leadership that we had taken in relation to East Timor. Once more they were trying to walk both sides of the street. They said they supported the Timor deployment but they were prepared to make a bit of cheap political capital out of the inevitable strain that that deployment imposed on the relationship between Australia and Indonesia. Once again the member for Denison, aided and abetted by the member for Kingsford-Smith, and no doubt capped by the Leader of the Opposition later on today in the matter of public importance, is doing the national interest in the eye. You know as well as I do that in a situation such as this, Mr Speaker, the injection of Australian police would have exposed them to an unacceptable physical danger. While I am Prime Minister of this country, I am not going to do that in relation to the police personnel of this nation.