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Thursday, 14 August 2003
Page: 18657

Mr JOHNSON (12:12 PM) —I rise in the Main Committee today to speak in strong support of the Australian government's recent decision to deploy the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands. I want to commend the federal government for the decision it has taken, because the problems facing the nation of the Solomon Islands are so serious and so grave that it does appear to be a country on the verge of economic collapse and social disintegration. The very governance of that island nation seems to be at stake.

It is timely then that, as I speak in the parliament, the Prime Minister is in Auckland, New Zealand at the annual leaders meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum. Australia's contribution involves 1,500 defence personnel, 155 Australian Federal Police personnel and 90 personnel from the Australian Protective Service. These personnel are part of a total mission comprising well over 2,000 Australians serving abroad. Let there be no misunderstanding that, whilst not in a theatre of war or conflict directly, their mission still represents a most dangerous task. In some ways it is even more dangerous because of the environment in which they are operating. Therefore it is appropriate and essential that we in this parliament acknowledge their dedication and service. Our Pacific neighbours—Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand—should also be recognised for their very valuable contribution to the Regional Assistance Mission. So this is not entirely or exclusively an Australian operation; it is a mission that embraces and includes the very important Pacific island nations who realise that a failed state on their doorstep would be a terrible signal to send around the region.

At the heart of the crisis facing the Solomon Islands is a total breakdown of law and order and the uncontrollable activities of the local gangs who are running rampant over the duly elected government of the country. Associated with this law enforcement breakdown and chaos is the erosion of all the very critical institutions of the country. A strong, functioning democracy requires its broad institutions—the legislature, the executive, the judiciary and the media—to be working without compromise or corruption. So when these important pillars are under real siege and those who occupy important positions within them are harassed, tortured or even assassinated, it is little wonder that the very fabric of the country itself is under attack.

Growing violence and intimidation, actual or threatened, has become an all too common occurrence for the people who live in the Solomon Islands. Law and order rapidly deteriorated, with rival criminal gangs fighting for control and terrorising villages. Over 1,000 people have had to flee the Weather Coast to seek refuge in Honiara. Such is the terrible state of the Solomon Islands that the former police commissioner and National Peace Councillor Sir Alfred Soaki was assassinated earlier this year in February and, in August of last year, cabinet minister Father Augustine Geve was also killed.

As the Prime Minister stated in his motion before the House on Tuesday, 12 August:

Kidnapping, murder, rape and torture have gone unchecked. Police are unable or unwilling to investigate many of these crimes. There are too many examples of criminals evading arrest, charges or detention, protected by corrupt politicians, officials, police or prison guards.

Consequently it is imperative that Australia does all it can to help the government and the people of the Solomon Islands restore integrity to their civil society. It must be made clear that the decision to commit the regional assistance mission was made following an official request by the government of the Solomon Islands through its Prime Minister, Sir Allan Kemakeza. I know that the people in my electorate of Ryan would be very interested to know that on 11 July 2003 the parliament of the Solomon Islands passed a motion which formally endorsed the assistance package that is now being implemented. So we were invited to help the Solomon Islands.

With a crippled economy, a barely functional justice system, the police force and government mired in corruption and with a climate of community violence all around him, it is little wonder that Sir Allan sought the assistance of the Australian government. There are many people in the Solomon Islands who believe themselves to be above the law. Our presence, therefore, was all about restoring law and order and control to the people of the Solomon Islands. There is little doubt that the presence of Australian personnel in the Solomon Islands has the warm support of the people, who clearly want a return to law and order and an environment in which they can get on with their daily lives without fear for life and limb.

Of course, the Solomon Islands police, to the best of their abilities, will work hand in hand with members of the Australian Federal Police to provide safety and security to communities of that country. Australia is in a position to play an important role given our size, our wealth and our resources in the region in comparison to the many other island states of the Pacific. We are seen to be the premier country in the region in terms of leadership and international capacity to act. I have read and been told in some quarters that this position of leadership and willingness to assist is somehow equated with some kind of neo-colonial behaviour or desire on Australia's part. Nothing could be further from the truth. Australia does not seek to exert its political will over the sovereignty of any Pacific island country. The very reason we want to help countries like the Solomon Islands is that we want to rescue the fragility of those societies and their fledgling democracies.

It is because we want to enhance the sovereignty of our friends and neighbours in the region that we put in potential harm's way the lives of young Australian men and women. For those who peddle the line of a return to Australian colonial activity, let me say that you do yourselves little favour and you are way off the mark in your reading of the dynamics of international relations in the 21st century. This situation is a very real concern and challenge for Australia's own national security in a broad and regional context. We all know that failed states provide an environment that is attractive to criminals engaged in all kinds of activities, from the trafficking of drugs and people to money laundering and to being a potential safe haven for those who wish to commit terrorist acts in the region.

With our own country seeking to enhance its security, we have a compelling interest to play a part in contributing to the stability of the region, and that includes the viability of the struggling nation states in the Pacific. Our present contribution in the Pacific is surely one measure that reflects that. I am confident that most Australians would recognise the role Australia has to play and would generously support the Howard government's decision to assist a neigh-bour, especially if it means improving regional security and stability. Australia's activities in the Solomon Islands reinforce our very deep commitment to maintaining and improving regional security and also to lending a helping hand to those island nations who require assistance. As the foreign minister stated in his speech to the House on Tuesday, 12 August:

... we do not want countries in our part of the world to become unstable and we will do all we reasonably can—in an appropriate way and within the confines of international law—to uphold and maintain the stability of the region.

This cooperative intervention, as the foreign minister has labelled it, is a significant adjustment in foreign policy outlook that deserves the support of the Australian people and I know it will have the generous support of the people of Ryan. It will have the warm support of my electorate of Ryan because they will want the Solomon Islands to return to as stable and as prosperous a country as it can be. That requires domestic stability, the enforcement of law and order and the stamping out of endemic corruption.

Whilst I did not grow up in the Solomon Islands, I have a very strong affection for the Pacific. I grew up in another Pacific country: Papua New Guinea. I place on record my personal desire that things improve as speedily as possible in the Solomon Islands so that its people can have fulfilling lives. As I alluded to earlier, other countries in the Pacific region have also made a contribution to the mission and it is important that this is recognised in this parliament. They have recognised the importance of helping neighbouring countries in need of assistance and that is why they, too, are involved in the comprehensive assistance package. Whilst over 1,000 weapons have already been handed in and contact has been made with two of the island's most significant rebel figureheads, clearly more needs to be done.

The enormous problems that the Solomon Islands confront today as a small island nation will not be resolved overnight. It is safe to say that they will not be resolved this year or even within a few years. That has become patently clear to everyone, but equally clear is that something needs to be done. The first step needs to be taken because the price of total inaction is probably one which no Australian government, or friend of the Solomon Islands or the Pacific, would want to contemplate. The Australian government's decision is therefore that first vital step. Not only is the operation, which is very suitably called `Operation Helping Friend', making it safer to walk the streets again; it is also bringing stability to the budget, rebuilding the nation's government and restoring the delivery of essential government services to the people. All of these efforts, which are perhaps small at this stage, will contribute to improving living standards and increasing economic growth and opportunity. These efforts will take some time and of course patience is needed.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the Australians heavily involved in our mission who are representing the goodwill that Australia brings to the people of the Solomon Islands. I pay tribute to Nick Warner, who has the difficult role of Special Coordinator of the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, and to Mr Ben McDevitt, Assistant Commissioner from the Australian Federal Police. Both these men have tasks which are tremendously important, and all Australians can be confident that they are carrying out their responsibilities with integrity and professionalism.

In particular I want to place on record the appreciation and thanks of my electorate of Ryan, which I have the great privilege of representing in the federal parliament, for the dedication and service of all our personnel in the Solomon Islands. I am certain that the thoughts and prayers of your fellow Australians are with you, and may you all return home safe and sound when your important work has ended. I also pay tribute to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, for the tremendous effort he has invested in this issue. He has been a very active foreign minister, having participated in the Townsville forum in 2000 and also personally visiting the Solomon Islands. As with all the challenges that have faced him, the minister has handled the Solomon Islands crisis with great skill. I also take this opportunity to acknowledge the support of the opposition for the government's position, making this decision one which has bipartisan support. This is important for our foreign policy engagement and especially important for our personnel serving abroad. I am also certain that the government of the Solomon Islands would be appreciative of that bipartisan support. In conclusion, I congratulate all those involved in this mission and wish in particular the personnel in the Solomon Islands a safe and speedy return.

Debate (on motion by Ms Julie Bishop) adjourned.