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Transcript of doorstop: 10 June 2003: Parliament House.



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E and OE

10 June 2003

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer

Doorstop -Parliament House

Journalist: Minister, co-operative intervention. Does this involve policemen or troops?

Downer: In the case of the Solomon Islands we have a team doing a scoping study which is there over the next three days. And we’ll have to make some decisions once the scoping study report is complete and also we’ve spent some time consulting with our colleagues from New Zealand. I’ve spoken with the New Zealand Foreign Minister on a number of occasions, including at the end of last week. And we certainly are involving New Zealand fully in this exercise. And we’ve also begun the process of consulting with other Pacific island countries. So there’s a bit of a way to go yet before we can answer that question.

Journalist: So is it possible there would be any military commitment at all? Would it be Australian Federal Police officers?

Downer: I think it’s important that I answer your question this way, and say we’re not really at the stage of ruling things in and out. We are at the stage of just putting together some advice from officials on what might or might not be possible. There are complex issues here of course. There is the question about the feelings of the Solomon Islanders themselves. The Solomon Islands Government has a view, they’ve been to see us to express their view. We need to consult other sections of the Solomon Islands community, including civil society there. The churches for example, have been very active by the way, very constructive and we need to consult people like the churches and NGOs and obviously opposition politicians and the like.

Journalist: …no decision has been made, just looking at options. But it sounds also from what you’re saying that a kind of in principle decision to do something has been made to intervene somehow. Is that correct?

Downer: My sense is that, as I said in the speech, we did well in playing our part, and we weren’t the only players, but in playing our part in putting together the Townsville Peace Agreement and ending the very near civil war. And of course that process of civil strife has been going on in Solomon Islands for years and years, for decades. That was successful. But the law and order situation, the lawlessness there, is something that really has troubled me. I went there in December last year and I wasn’t happy, as you can imagine, with the situation. And it was just after there had been some successful extortion of the government led by some elements of the police. And the fact is the lawlessness is just going along unchecked. And although we’ve trained, through AusAID, and the New Zealanders have helped as well, a number of new police, I think about 130 new police officers; there are still enormous problems at higher levels in the Solomon Islands police force. And there’s a new police commissioner there, a British police commissioner. And he’s started off well and he’s doing what he can. But to be honest with you I just think the law and order situation is quite deplorable there.

And I have, as time has gone on, moved more towards this notion of co-operative intervention - working with a country to look at more pro-active ways we can intervene rather than do nothing but hope that our aid budget will do the trick.

Journalist: How big is the problem with illegal weapons or just weapons more generally? How many do you estimate are floating around and would part of the objective of whatever intervention goes on be to go around confiscating those weapons to help the law and order problem?

Downer: Obviously a real issue. There are quite a lot of weapons still left. We’ve, through the International Peace Monitoring Team and the Peace Council, managed to collect about 2,000 weapons. Some of those are not, some are, but there are still a lot of rather sophisticated automatic weapons which are still out on the loose. So that’s obviously one of the issues that we’re reflecting on.

Journalist: Minister you have said that really Australia’s going to respond to what the Solomons asks for. What did they ask for when they came down last week, and did they ask for intervention?

Downer: No, we’re not necessarily going to respond to them for what they ask. But they did come along here and make general requests for further assistance with the law and order situation. They didn’t have any particular and specific plans, but they wanted us to involve ourselves more in helping to restore law and order, let me put it to you that way. Though it’s for them to talk about anything else they’ve said.

Journalist: Would they object though, if Australian police or some international police were there. Did they say, would they welcome it? What was the feeling?

Downer: The feeling was that we’d send a scoping study and see what’s feasible. And when you say they, the Solomon Islands Government obviously is the, more or less, democratically elected authority in the country, but one has to take into consideration the broader views of the community there. So we’re in the process of doing that. But I don’t want to get into the specifics of what the Solomon Islands Government might want on one particular day. Our answer to them and our thinking for quite some time is that we should look to see whether there isn’t a whole new level of activity we can move to from the level of activity we’ve been involved in up until now.

Journalist: Are there any time-frames in mind, and do you think that it’s going to get worse before it gets better?

Downer: I think the economy is progressively getting worse, that’s the problem. I think the lawlessness problem is flat lining, as the Americans would say. It’s not getting better, it’s not getting worse. But the flat line is an unacceptably low line. And the trouble is in that environment, the economy is gradually keeling over and dying. So, that’s obviously a real issue.

Journalist: Australia has been and continues to be involved in a range of conflicts around the world. For, I suppose, the ordinary voter, why is Australia getting involved in this. What’s our responsibility, what’s the pressure in the region of why you’re taking this step?

Downer: If we don’t fix up Solomon Islands no-one will be able to. We’re the only country

with the capability to do this. Does the Solomon Islands matter to us? In this report it makes that point very well. First of all, there’s no doubt that in a practical sense, a failed state on Australia’s doorstep provides a location where illegal activities can take place. For example, drug trafficking in particular, money laundering, people trafficking, all these sorts of activities could readily take place within the sovereign boundaries of a failed state. Secondly I do think the international community looks to Australia to ensure that the South Pacific is a stable part of the world. And so we carry some international responsibilities borne out of geography towards the South Pacific and also borne out of our history as well. And thirdly I think, if we can continue the work we did for example, we played a decisive role in helping to get Fiji back to democracy, if we can really get the Solomon Islands going again that will send a very strong message to other countries in the region, that there’s a point where Australia just can’t sit by and make the argument that these are independent countries and they’re nothing to do with us. There’s a point where we can’t sit by. There’s a point where we want to engage with these countries and get the problems fixed.

Journalist: And Minister coming back to the timeline issue, how much time do you have? When’s …

Downer: Not much time. Not much time. We look forward to getting a report back from the team that’s gone to Honiara in the next few days. They’ll be there for three days. They’ll presumably want a day or two to assemble their report next week, no doubt. I’ll have the opportunity to meet with them, we’ll be able to talk it through and no doubt once we’ve done that in the next week or so we’ll have more to say about this.

Journalist: Minister what’s your view of the ASPI suggestion, 150 police and also their view that the Solomons Government has lost so much legitimacy that any multinational force is probably going to have to be under the control of the donors, not the Solomons Government, to have any legitimacy?

Downer: On the first point, I’d just not rule that in or out. I just keep an open mind on precisely how we could intervene and what the best way would be. And some of these assessments of those sorts of proposals have to be made by security people better qualified to make these assessments than me. And we look forward to hearing what they have to say. I don’t know about the government exactly losing legitimacy. It is a democratically elected government. It was possible to hold democratic elections in 2001. I have no doubt that there were flaws in that electoral process, but in the circumstances I think the elections went moderately well. So it is a government which has a democratic mandate. We accept that. But you can argue about the particular individuals involved in any government I suppose.

Journalist: Is Sir Alan Kemakeza one of the good guys? There are some suggestions he might be part of the problem as well.

Downer: It would be a big problem if I start going around saying who are good guys and who are bad guys in a foreign government. But we’re happy to work with Sir Alan. We work well with Sir Alan. I’ve known him for a number of years and I’ve always found him pretty good to deal with.

Journalist: Mr Downer just on a domestic issue, this fundraiser that you’re holding in Adelaide..?

Downer: It’s not a fundraiser.

Journalist: If there is to be some sort of co-operative intervention though, who would be actually controlling it? Would it be the donors or would it come under the control of the Solomons Government?

Downer: Remember the Solomon Islands is a sovereign country and I think in the first place, how can I put it to you, this is the best way of putting it, because I thought the report slightly missed this point -the rule of law has to apply. The Solomon Islands constitution has to apply and Solomon Islands laws have to apply. So, any foreign intervention can’t just disregard the laws of the land. And it’s the Parliament of the Solomon Islands that makes the laws of the land. So just putting something under the control of donors is not really very practical if it’s not done in co-operation with the local government.

Journalist: Mr Downer, this event you’re holding,

Downer: You’ve changed your word already, rather quickly.

Journalist: A Liberal Party event that you’re charging people money to attend that’s not a fundraiser. There’s been some criticism …

Downer: Well what’s your definition of a fundraiser?

Journalist: (Inaudible)

Downer: It’s not a fundraiser because the money…

Journalist: Is that appropriate for Mr Schieffer to be talking at a Liberal Party function?

Downer: I was at a Liberal Party function over the weekend and there were several Ambassadors there, the German Ambassador, senior officials from a number of other countries. It’s not inappropriate for Ambassadors to attend Party functions. Ambassadors go to the Labor Party convention and to Labor Party functions. It is inappropriate for them to raise money for political parties, although Embassies do pay to go to Party conventions and conferences, but I don’t have any problem with that. In this particular case it’s not a fundraiser. It’s a cocktail party put together at the same time as our annual general meeting. We’re charging people $20 a head. We’ll be lucky if that covers the costs of the function. I doubt that it will.

Journalist: Do they drink more cocktails than that do they?

Downer: What do you reckon, $20 a head? And there’ll be about 120 people there. So I think it’s entirely appropriate. We’ve had the American Ambassador, not this one, a previous one, two before, come to a similar function, to a dinner actually. And the EU Ambassador, the Commission’s representative came to my electorate to do the same sort of thing during the life of the Labor Government. I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t think Ambassadors want to be used for fundraising, but I don’t think they should be debarred from visiting Members of Parliament’s electorates and meeting with people who belong to the political party of the Member of Parliament. I mean actually, it’s an amazing thing, but we shouldn’t preclude the American Ambassador from meeting members of the Liberal Party. He shouldn’t just be meeting in Simon Crean’s office with members of the Labor Party.

Journalist: Did the Ambassador know that it was a charge to get in, before he agreed to do that function for you?

Downer: He didn’t know it was a fundraiser, because it’s not a fundraiser. We have to cover our costs somehow though. We don’t have vast amounts of money. He doesn’t mind at all that we’re covering our costs. And you wrote and article saying it was a fundraiser, even though you were told it wasn’t a fundraiser.

Journalist: I was told that you were going to make some out of it but it wasn’t a very profitable fundraiser.

Downer: Well we won’t be making, no probably at $20 a head, it depends how many people turn up but I don’t think …

Journalist: If you do (inaudible) make some money because they’re not drinking cocktails like you expected them to, what’s the money going to be directed towards?

Downer: Well I doubt that we will make any money. If we make money it’d be, we could lose money, if we lose money we’ll just have to wear it. If we make a few dollars - it’s not a fundraiser. If you want to make money, it’s a tragic thing to say this but it’s the truth, if you want to make money in our days for elections you have to charge people a bit more than $20 a head to go, to pay for their drinks and a few party pies.

Journalist: You could serve a cheaper wine?

Downer: You could serve a cheaper wine, but when you come to the electorate of Mayo you don’t talk about serving nasty cheap wine, you talk about serving the great wines of South Australia -the Adelaide Hills, Maclaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, Petaluma, I could advertise a number of other companies.

ENDS