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Tuesday, 19 August 2003
Page: 18951

Ms JULIE BISHOP (6:50 PM) —It is the accepted responsibility of developed nations to assist less fortunate nations. This is, after all, the rationale for foreign aid, of which the Australian government provides around $1.8 billion annually. The substantial proportion of that aid is spent in our immediate region, most particularly in Papua New Guinea and in the other nations of Melanesia, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. This too is a given. Papua New Guinea is our former colony. There is a fraternal responsibility on our part for that nation's future development as well as a strategic return on our investment. Similarly, Vanuatu is a former Anglo-French colony which received its independence in 1980, and the Solomons was granted independence by Britain in 1978—so far, so usual.

But this moment marks a turning point in a three-decade-long national approach to the Pacific islands. The Australian government has agreed to escalating calls for intervention in the Solomon Islands. Fifteen hundred Australian troops supported by 500 colleagues, including from New Zealand and Fiji, are now in the Solomon Islands to support the efforts of civilian administrators and police led by the former ambassador to Port Moresby and former ambassador for counter-terrorism, Nick Warner, to restore order to that troubled nation. In essence, Australia is now offering actions, not merely words, in response to pleas for assistance.

We have not necessarily been so responsive in the past. From the Solomons alone Australia has in the past ignored governmental requests for military intervention, notably just prior to the 2000 coup in Honiara. This inaction has not necessarily been unwarranted nor has inaction been necessarily callous. The planning response to the 1987 Fijian coups revealed the significant degree to which the Australian Defence Force was incapable of deploying military force away from our shores, particularly without the support of the United States military. It is only now, after a much needed investment in the ADF capability and after the experience garnered in Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq, that such a deployment is a ready option. Thus the deployment of the civilian and military forces to the Solomons is to the government's credit. Australian intervention signals to our friends and neighbours and to the rest of the world that we are serious about the alleviation of suffering and the defence of liberty.

It must be said that there are issues of strict national interest that propel us towards pre-emptive action in the Solomons. One reason surely is that a failed Solomons threatens a domino effect across Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, and further afield. Another is the ever-present threat that the political vacuum in Honiara will be filled by undesirable states—for example, Libya, whose interest in neighbouring Vanuatu has long been noted—or non-state actors such as terrorist groups. The ABC has already reported the news that suspicious Pakistani nationals have been observed visiting the islands. But as Dr Robert Ayson of the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre has noted, it is not, nor should it be, a narrow realism that motivates Australian intervention. We have an obligation to our neighbours to come to their aid when required. This is not paternalism; far from it. This is fraternalism. Our historical responsibilities, our shared past, our hopeful future together draw us back into the region. Five hundred thousand Solomon Islanders look to Australia for their salvation, and the world looks to us to meet that test.

Not that the test in question is not difficult. I had the opportunity to join the foreign minister, along with a number of other parliamentary members, in Honiara last December, and I had the privilege to meet the resolute but embattled supporters of democracy in the Solomons both within and without government. During my visit to Guadalcanal I was shocked by a realisation that there was a sense of sheer fear from just being on the streets of Honiara, a capital wrenched by ethnic war and civil disorder in a nation bloodied by violence. We would not expect an Australian to live in such conditions and we ought not to expect our neighbours to do so.

A variety of issues needed to be addressed before an intervention was green-lighted. These included, firstly, that intervention could proceed only at the instigation of and with clear support from the Solomon Islands government. Such notice was prefigured by Prime Minister Sir Allan Kemakeza, the Right Honourable Father Sir John Ini Lapli, the Right Honourable Sir Peter Kenilorea, Malaitan Premier Reuben Moli and Deputy Commissioner of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Wilfred Akao. On 11 July, the parliament of Solomon Islands confirmed a formal request for assistance by the Governor-General and has since passed enabling legislation to facilitate coalition operations on its islands. The intervention has the strong support of the people and government of the Solomon Islands.

Secondly, it required a firm understanding of the costs. It has been estimated that a 10-year-long civilian engagement could cost Australian taxpayers $850 million and could risk the lives of Australian soldiers and police as well as civil servants. These costs, however they have been estimated, must be considered in light of the more than $100 billion in aid to the Pacific which constitutes our response to regional dysfunction to date and the greater costs that might accrue through inaction.

Thirdly, another basic requirement was multilateral support of and participation in an intervention. This does not necessarily mean the involvement of the United Nations. There is already a good general understanding on this issue among Australia, New Zealand and the other members of the South Pacific Forum as well as a broader Commonwealth concern that might include the United Kingdom in related operations. This is essentially a matter of balance between operational efficacy and the sharing of risks and costs. On 30 June, the Pacific island foreign ministers met in Sydney and unanimously agreed to support intervention. As I have already noted, Wellington and Suva have backed up that declaration with a military commitment.

Fourthly, it requires the realistic provision of armed support. Given the existing situation on the islands, particularly on Guadalcanal's Weather Coast, any multinational police force that is dispatched must be able to rely on combat-ready military backup. Late last month hostilities were apparently reopened by Harold Keke, and up to 10 local militia supporters were killed in gun battles. It is positive to note that the particular problem of Harold Keke has been resolved—he is in the custody of the intervention force. Furthermore, the effect of the civil war and the dissolution of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force has been to distribute across the community a number—possibly 1,000 or 2,000—of military style firearms. The dispatch of a 2,000-strong military component was therefore a realistic reaction to possible interference with the civilian mission, and therefore appropriate rules of engagement have been formulated and underwritten by resolution of the Solomon Islands parliament. In the first instance, the army is there to assist in the achievement of civilian goals, not vice versa.

Fifthly, Australia should be prepared for a long-term commitment in the Solomons which will necessitate broader economic and governmental reforms so as to ensure the state's future viability. We also need to reopen consideration of how Australia's domestic policies impact on the Pacific—most particularly our immigration policy for islanders. This is important given the continuing population pressures, the need for remittances and our approach to regional trade.

It seems appropriate in this instance to talk at some length about the Solomons themselves. Originally inhabited about 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, the several hundred islands spread over 645,000 square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean were discovered by the Spanish in 1568. The six largest islands of the archipelago carry the bulk of the population of 500,000. Geography is therefore a great asset and a great liability for the Solomons. Geography has given the nation a barrier from much of the trouble in the world, although it could not prevent Guadalcanal being one of the principal battlefields of World War II.

But the geography of the Solomons has also left their future marginal. Just one per cent of the land is arable; the rest is largely coral reef. Cyclones are usual in the summer wet season. There are only 34 kilometres of sealed road and no internal waterways or, for that matter, railways. While tourism was once a useful money-spinner, particularly from visiting American veterans, that industry has largely been destroyed by the violence. The country ranks 177th in international living standards with per capita GDP around $A780. What non-subsistence enterprise that does exist is centred on palm oil, timber and fishing, with some mineral deposits such as gold, copper and bauxite.

Literacy runs at about 62 per cent and conditions in the health system are so extreme that patients at the Honiara hospital have in the past been expected to provide their own meals. Those Solomon Islanders who are able to access a comfortable lifestyle are generally public servants. As a result, the state's bloated wage bills have savagely eroded the national wealth.

There is also a significant problem that has been identified by Australian public health professionals: demography. Nearly half of the population is aged under 30. It is the young urban men and teenagers, 80 per cent of whom are unemployed, who swell the ranks of the gunmen. Even if an educational future can be found for these youths, there must be jobs for them to go to once they leave the classroom.

So why the need for military intervention in particular? The answer to this question lies back in the late 1990s. The fundamentally weak economic and social condition of the islands after independence allowed ethnic tensions to spill over into politics and eventually conflict. Since the war, many islanders from Malaita had settled on Guadalcanal, the island home to the capital, Honiara. Over time, Malaitans came to dominate the Guadalcanal economy and the public service. Interestingly, underlying much of the Guadalcanalese-Malaitan tensions was the issue of gender relations. Guadalcanalese are matrilineal in their traditions, the Malaitans patrilineal. Thus in 1998 a number of Guadalcanalese men presented demands for compensation from the government for alleged Malaitan damages. In response to refusal these men formed the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army and began to seek the forced repatriation of Malaitans.

By 1999 some 20,000 Malaitans had been driven into Honiara from the countryside. Others fled back to their home island. Violence intensified when the Malaitans formed the Malaitan Eagle Force, which included considerable numbers of serving police. With the police split and the government split, the country descended into anarchy. Both sides petitioned the government for ever-larger compensation. The goldmines shut, the palm oil plantations emptied and government revenue disappeared. Despite an attempt at Commonwealth mediation, the final step downwards was in 2000 when the then Prime Minister requested foreign military intervention to save his government. On 5 June members of the Eagle Force openly backed by police seized the Honiara armoury. The Prime Minister was deposed and armed gangs walked the streets. Only after the Townsville Peace Agreement, brokered in October, was a ceasefire called. That has been maintained only at a cost of further reconstruction.

I have not been unduly focused on the history of the Solomon Islands. I am indebted to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and their remarkable historical summary for this account. The results of the last five years have been: an unresolved ethnic war; a sidelined parliament and governor-general; numerous armed factions, including Keke, who is involved in the revolutionary army; an expectation that government can be extorted into paying off militants—in early July, over 200 militants demanded goodwill payments from the Prime Minister to desist from violence; a delegitimised police force unable and on occasion unwilling to end the violence; an economy built on pyramid schemes, public service wages and foreign aid; and over 1,000—perhaps 2,000—weapons at large.

The passive approach has had its successes. More money is going into building better governance practices, a neutral party from the Greater Manchester Police has been appointed to head the police and weapons have been returned under an amnesty. But the passive approach has reached its end. Only active intervention can facilitate the possibility of reconstruction and an end to the violence. In consequence, only active intervention can secure Australia's humanitarian and strategic interests in Melanesia. To some extent, this enterprise may serve as a useful template should—God forbid—a similar exercise be required elsewhere in Melanesia in the future.

I conclude by expressing my appreciation not only for the leadership of the Australian government on this matter and in particular the work of our foreign minister but also for the diligence of the Solomon Islands High Commissioner to Australia, Mr Milner Tozaka, who has done much to drive Australian interest in his homeland, and the independent policy think tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, whose report Our failing neighbour: Australia and the future of the Solomon Islands was released in June. That report should be required reading for all Australians interested in our foreign relations and is testament to the useful role being played by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in public debate. Despite the looming challenge in the Solomons, I am reminded of the apt comment made by the ABC's veteran South Pacific reporter Graeme Dobell in an address to parliamentarians back in February. He said:

There is no exit strategy for us in the South Pacific. After all, this is where we live.

I commend the motion to the chamber.