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Foreign Minister discusses Solomon Islands; and West Papuan asylum seekers.

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DATE: April 21 2006

TITLE: 2GB with Philip Clarke

PHILIP CLARKE: Mr Downer good afternoon to you.

MR DOWNER: Good afternoon to you.

CLARKE: So, you’re on your way to the Solomons now are you?

DOWNER: Well I’m going very first thing tomorrow morning. I’m going out to an official dinner here in Tonga tonight and then first thing in the morning going up to the Solomon’s and I’ll spend the best part of tomorrow in the Solomon Islands.

CLARKE: What, for the benefit of our listeners, what’s your understanding of what’s going on there - it does seem as though the ethnic tensions have spilled over into a whole new dimension with this targeting of the Chinese business community there in particular…

DOWNER: .. They targeted some of the Chinese business community, but not all of it. And the reason is that the opponents of the new Prime Minister, Snyder Rini, who won the vote in the parliament for the Prime Ministership, believe that he won that vote because the money of some Chinese business leaders was used to bribe MPs to vote for him. That’s the allegation and that’s what’s triggered the violence.

CLARKE: Is there any truth to the allegations?

DOWNER: Well, they’re pretty serious allegations and I think I could only say that you get these sorts of allegations in the Solomon Islands a great deal and they would have to be tested in a court before we could establish whether they were true or not.

CLARKE: What do you make of this new government anyway?

DOWNER: Well I think the fact is you’ve got to deal with whatever government they come up with - I mean, it’s a democracy. The elections were on the whole pretty free and fair, and there were some irregularities, but not to the extent they would have changed the results of the elections. And the Parliament then assembled and then the Parliament chooses the Prime Minister in a situation where they don’t have parties with the formalities that we have

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political parties. We just have to deal with the government that they serve up, and I guess I will avoid, as the Foreign Minister, getting into a detailed analysis of them. I mean, some of the former MPs were re-elected - about 50 per cent I think, weren’t, so there are a lot of new members of the parliament and as time goes on some of those people will start coming through and we’ll see what they are like.

CLARKE: It doesn’t seem as though there’s been much progress made towards the Solomons having their own security force, a security force that’s able to control anything, based on the events of the last few days. That’s got to be a concern for us - I mean we’ve been there for two years already.

DOWNER: Yeah, more than that - over two and a half years. But a lot of good things have happened, I mean, the economy has got back up on its feet - or had got back up on its feet - and overall people’s living standards have substantially improved in that period. The Royal Solomon Islands Police have been, to some extend cleaned out - there were a lot of very corrupt people in the police, a lot of those people have now left. And you’ve got a whole new generation of people coming into the police. I think they are pretty good actually, but I mean their capacity to deal with these riots - including our capacity to deal with these riots - was sorely tested. I don’t think it’s so much the police and the security forces actually, I think the concern for us it that there is still an underlying culture of political instability and that remains a worry. Now, I wouldn’t for a moment have thought that we could have fixed that culture which has been in place at least since independence in 1978, that that culture could be eradicated overnight. That’s going to take a good deal of time. But obviously it’s very disturbing that its inherent instability flared up in the way it has, just in the last few days.

CLARKE: Can we talk about Indonesia for a second. There does seem to be some impression that we’re bending over backwards and doing double back summersaults at the command of Indonesia to try to placate them over this West Papua issue - secret meetings and now they want us to make apologies and we’re sending back West Papuans and so on - just how far do we go to accommodate them?

DOWNER: Well, we’re not trying to accommodate Indonesia - we’ve said to the Indonesians quite clearly we’re not apologising for the decision that the Immigration Department took to give those 42 asylum seekers temporary protection visas and we’re not changing our policies just to placate the Indonesians. We need to have in have in place though, good, sound but tough policies on asylum seekers, and we’ve re-enforced that recently. But today, Michael L’Estrange - the Secretary of my Department - is in Jakarta and he is having a round of meetings there. We have obviously had a fair bit of telephone contact with him, but when he finishes his visit there I will get a fuller and clearer report from him on how he’s going and how he’s gone. I think it’s important to us that we have a stable relationship with Indonesia because we have alot of cooperation in areas like counter-terrorism and dealing with problems like people smuggling, drug-trafficking and all of those sorts of things, it’s just in our national interest that we have a good working relationship with them. But it has to be a relationship based on mutual respect - they’ve got to respect our laws, we’ve got to respect theirs. I don’t think it should be one sided. I’ve always said this while I’ve been the Foreign Minister, you have to win other countries respect and that often requires doing things that are right, but not necessarily very popular.

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CLARKE: Are the Indonesians abusing human rights abuses in West Papua?

DOWNER: There have been abuses of human rights in West Papua, of course there have been. I think that is something not just that we would acknowledge, but I think that’s something that President Yudohoyno would acknowledge. And his recent visit there I thought was very encouraging - President Yudohoyno pushing this programme for special autonomy for West Papua. If he can achieve the success he’s achieved in Aceh in West Papua, it will be a very big thing. But the Indonesians do have a big job in West Papua - to placate the population, to work successfully with the population - not the Indonesians, I mean the Jakarta Government does - they’re very conscious of that actually and I think that side of the debate hasn’t perhaps been articulated enough here in Australia.

CLARKE: Good to talk with you.

DOWNER: It’s a pleasure.