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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21479

Dr WASHER (2:28 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Given the current focus on our Pacific neighbours, would the minister inform the House of Australia's involvement in the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands?

Mr DOWNER (Minister for Foreign Affairs) —I thank the member for Moore for his question, and I appreciate his interest. There has not been much discussion about the Solomon Islands in the parliament for a little while, and I am glad he has asked for an update. I am pleased to be able to report that the regional assistance mission—RAMSI as we call it—has made significant headway in removing the key threats to the Solomon Islands government's capacity to govern. Harold Keke's terrorisation of the Weathercoast has been stopped altogether. Keke remains in RAMSI custody, and he is expected to go on trial early next year. Fifteen of Harold Keke's associates have now been arrested for serious crimes, including murder.

The harassment and intimidation of government officials in Honiara has mercifully ceased. Progress has been made also in arresting Malaitan ex-militant criminals and investigations into serious crimes over recent years are continuing. The RAMSI mission, in addition to the main police base, has established 15 police posts in eight of the nine provinces of Solomon Islands. The police have now collected over 3,700 weapons—637 of those weapons are ex-police weapons.

Stabilisation of the economy is well underway. Seventeen Australian advisors and in-line personal are in place to ensure the implementation of sound financial management. We are also going to provide $12 million worth of budgetary support up until June 2004 so that the government of Solomon Islands can function and basic services can be provided. We are putting into place systems to underpin economic reform and to target corrupt practices.

There is a continuing very high level of public and political support for the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands opposition continues to voice support for the regional assistance mission and civil society and church leaders who were very welcoming when the mission was first deployed continue to be extremely supportive. I am delighted also to report that the six countries, in addition to Australia and New Zealand, that have provided personnel to RAMSI are contributing successfully to police and in some cases to the military. Vanuatu is due to send some personnel within the next few days.

It is also pleasing to see that international financial institutions are re-engaging with the Solomon Islands following our repayment of the Solomon Islands arrears owed to the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. Indications also are that major donors—such as the European Union and Japan—are becoming more confident in the situation in Solomon Islands. There is going to be a meeting—I think in late November—and our expectation is that there will be some fairly solid commitments made at that meeting to the Solomon Islands.

This initiative to deploy into the Solomon Islands has so far been enormously successful. The security situation in particular is massively better. Obviously, we will have to consider now the gradual draw down of some military elements, consistent with the police-led nature of the regional assistance mission.