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Thursday, 14 August 2003
Page: 18654


Mr KERR (11:57 AM) —In the debate that was initiated by the Prime Minister, I was disorderly and interjected during the speech of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and the foreign minister did me the discourtesy of suggesting that I was interjecting in a manner which was calculated to damage the bipartisanship that had been displayed. In truth, I was not seeking to damage the bipartisanship towards an initiative which is very well founded and is proceeding in a way which appears, at the moment, to be successful not only in its own terms but also because there has been no loss of life or threat to any of those who have engaged in it. But I was seeking to put to the foreign minister something of grave importance, and that is the fact that we have sent an intervention force of some thousands of military and some hundreds of police which ought not have been necessary. That large contingent, with orders to shoot to kill if required, would not have had to have been had the Howard government acted at a time when it had the opportunity, before the crisis came to a head.

At the time when action could have been taken, when the problem of the Solomon Islands was more of a nuisance than a nation-shattering crisis, the Howard government failed to act. The military intervention of the scale undertaken has been required simply because of a failure of foresight. The government turned a blind eye to earlier, far more modest requests for assistance. They gave insufficient weight to evidence that the growing but sporadic community violence would escalate into nation-threatening revolt. We all know the old proverb that a stitch in time saves nine, and on this occasion that has worked itself out with tragic results. This is not a triumph for Australian diplomacy, as has been claimed by the government. In fact, it is a tragedy that we are cleaning up the mess that we allowed to escalate to a point where it directly risked our national interest. How do I know this? I know this simply by happenstance, because I was a member of a delegation that this parliament sent to the Solomon Islands in April 2000. I was deputy leader of that delegation, and it was led by the President of the Senate.

Before we left, we had the usual briefings provided to us by the department of foreign affairs. Surprisingly—given what we were to learn—at no stage did Foreign Affairs acquaint the delegation with the principal request that we would meet when we reached the Solomon Islands, which was the request by that government that Australia provide a share of assistance for some 50 police that the Solomon Islands wanted from the Commonwealth because they wanted to reinforce and stiffen their local policing, given the growing community tension between the Guadalcanalese and the Malaitans in the vicinity of the capital, Honiara. This was at a time when all the institutions of the government of the Solomon Islands were still operating. The elected government was in office, key institutions of administration were operating effectively and the police, whilst they had difficulties, were still capable of law enforcement within the capital and broadly able to secure law and order—all the institutions of effective governance were still largely in place.

When our delegation arrived in the Solomon Islands, we found a very beautiful place. It is one of the outstandingly beautiful places on this globe. But plainly there was tension in the air. When we met with the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, we were confronted with his request that we explain why the Australian government had not supported his request to support a Commonwealth intervention force and to provide 12 Australians—I think that was what they wanted—in that force of 50 police. The prime minister told us that he believed the Solomon Islands had support from other Pacific island countries, including Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, to provide a contribution to enable them to deal with the issues that they feared might emerge. He told us that there were some AFP officers present in the Solomon Islands, but they had been restricted to observer-only status; they could not play any part in dealing with the tensions that were emerging.

The Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands quite bluntly pointed out to us that one of the difficulties with the police force was that it was largely made up of Malaitans, who were sympathetic to the group that was starting to cause trouble, and that there were real risks that the police force would not be reliable in the case of an escalation of difficulties. It needed to be reinforced by external police. He told us, though, that the trouble was still at a very low level; that, whilst there were some instances of militancy and armed conduct, the number of those involved was still very small; and that the vast majority of the community was still well disposed towards a peaceful solution.

This request took us by surprise and we immediately confronted the Foreign Affairs officials—the high commissioner and his staff—after this meeting. Those staff were fairly embarrassed about this because we had not been advised either in Australia or after our arrival in the Solomons that this would be the key request made of us. We were told in a very awkward way that the Australian government had in fact decided to reject any such request and that Australia held the view that it would be irresponsible to provide such assistance to the Solomons. That struck us—particularly given what we had been told and had learnt on the ground—as a difficult position to justify, and so, when we met with the leader of the opposition in the Solomon Islands, we asked what the opposition view was. We were told that the opposition supported the Prime Minister's view that an external police force was required to assist in stabilising the country before it reached the point where it might descend into chaos.

Given this bipartisanship, we also raised the issue with the chief justice to see whether or not it accorded with his view—and it did. He expressed himself cautiously, given his legal responsibilities, but he certainly confirmed that there were tensions which were not capable of being adequately addressed by the local law enforcement agencies but that they were still localised and still manageable and that an external intervention force of the kind that was being requested by the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands would be effective to deal with those situations. Similar views were held by ordinary citizens that we spoke to and, when we went to Western Province, by provincial leaders as well.

Given that high level of unanimity, our delegation found it extremely difficult to understand why Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs had not accepted the wisdom of providing police assistance and that our cabinet had rejected it. It seemed madness to learn that a hitherto stable Pacific island nation was on the verge of collapse into lawlessness and the Australian government was going to stand aside. We were dragging our feet, in the certainty that our troops or police would later have to pick up the pieces of a tragedy that should never be allowed to happen.

Immediately upon returning to Australia I wrote to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer. The text of the letter has been read into the Hansard on a number of occasions, but a couple of the operative paragraphs state:

Given [the] rare expression of unanimity across the [Solomon Islands] political spectrum ... I believe it is important ... that you should give serious consideration to the Solomon Islands' Prime Minister's request to the Commonwealth to provide [police] assistance ... The details need careful attention but should not obscure the fundamentals of trying to ensure that what has been hitherto a peaceful and successful Pacific country does not become subverted by a few armed people operating as militias and the consequent undermining of ordinary law and order.

I never got a reply to that letter. Tragically, weeks later the Solomon Islands descended into chaos. Armed men kidnapped the Prime Minister and forced his resignation. Effectively, there was a coup. Effectively, the institutions of governance ceased to exist. The police gave their arms to the Malaitan Eagle rebel forces. Many people died. The institutions that had been in place that had allowed the Solomon Islands to be one of the success stories of the Pacific were plunged into chaos; they simply were unable to function.

Notionally the parliament sat and, under armed duress, elected a new Prime Minister, the man who now has reinvited the Australian intervention force into the country and who has seen the working through of recent events. But this whole tragedy reached a point where the chaos in the Solomon Islands was so great that it forced the Australian government to abandon its predisposition not to provide even a modest contribution of police and instead have to provide thousands of military in the expectation that they might face armed resistance. Three years later Australia had to send thousands of troops and hundreds of police to restore the peace that Alexander Downer failed to preserve when he had the chance.

The foreign minister expressed delight this morning on AM that the intervention has been successful to date. I share that delight. But it ought not be a surprise. There are two things to say here. First, the fact that we had the capacity, both military and policing, to make this intervention is due to the fact that the Keating government put in place both the materiel and personal training skills for such interventions during its time in office. When I was Minister for Justice, I made certain that our AFP had the training, had the capacity and had the effectiveness to undertake such exercises. We did it in Haiti, we have done it on a continuing basis in Cyprus and we did it in Cambodia. The AFP has the highest reputation for being able to operate in such circumstances. Also we gave our military the capacity to provide a backup capacity for such interventions. We put the materiel and personnel capacity in place.

Second, we should not be surprised that it is a success, because, overwhelmingly, the people of the Solomon Islands wanted it to be a success. That is what the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands said when we went there; that is what Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, the then Prime Minister, said to me in April 2000; that is what the then leader of the opposition said to me in April 2000; that is what the chief justice said; that is what the people on the street said; that is what the people in Western Province were saying. They wanted Australians there to save their country from descending into chaos. They hated the idea that their lives would be at risk, that innocents would be shot, that women and children would be in danger and that their institutions which provided them with safety and security would be undermined. They wanted our intervention to help them restore security, so it is not surprising that we have an intervention that is successful.

There is no prophecy in this. There is no pleasure in saying that, had we acted earlier, we would have been successful with a much more modest contribution—but we would have been. We would have spared the Solomon Islands the three years of bloodshed, chaos and tremendous economic cost both to the people of the Solomon Islands and to our region more generally. I have no words to dissent from the statement that the Prime Minister has tabled, but I do have a different aspect to the story. I have that component which speaks of what might have occurred for far greater benefit and far greater consequence had we had the foresight to act at a time when we could have. I have the capacity to put on the record in this parliament—as I should—a dirty little Solomon Islands secret that has been disguised and covered up by both Foreign Affairs and the government as they have spun this story as one of great success.

Blessings to those who are doing our work for us in the military and the police. They do their task extraordinarily well. Congratulations to all involved in this intervention force. I do wish good fortune on the government and the Prime Minister with this intervention, but I think I would be remiss if I did not bluntly state that this could have been far better achieved far earlier. (Time expired)