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Wednesday, 25 June 2003
Page: 17483

Mr JULL (2:03 PM) —My question is addressed to the Prime Minister. What action is the government taking in response to the Solomon Islands government's request for help in dealing with the law and order difficulties that that government is currently facing?

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —I thank the member for Fadden for his question, which touches upon a very important regional issue for Australia. The House would be aware that in April the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, Sir Allan Kemakeza, wrote to me seeking Australia's assistance to deal with the serious law and order problem in his country. He, accompanied by other senior ministers, came to Canberra on 5 June and held discussions with me, the foreign minister, the defence minister and the minister for justice. It was made clear by the Australian government during those discussions that, if the Australian government were disposed to become involved to assist the Solomon Islands government, it would have to be upon the basis of a properly backed and properly issued legal request from the government of the Solomon Islands so that, in every way, any action taken would fully comply with the requirements of international law.

Subsequently, a team of officials from Australia and New Zealand visited Honiara to consult the government and the broader community of the Solomon Islands. The National Security Committee of Cabinet met this morning and had a detailed briefing on the outcome of that scoping study. I can inform the House that the government is strongly disposed towards responding positively to the request made by the government of the Solomon Islands on the basis of our anticipation that that response would be in concert with New Zealand and with other countries in the Pacific Islands Forum.

The assistance that is being contemplated includes substantial policing, law and justice and economic assistance, backed up by significant operational support from the Australian Defence Force. The latter is crucial to the safety and effectiveness of any external assistance. It is the judgment of both the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Cosgrove, and the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mr Mick Keelty, that backup of that kind is essential for any successful intervention and any successful operation of this type.

The next step is for the foreign minister to chair a meeting of forum foreign ministers in Sydney on 30 June. I discussed the matter with the New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark, after the national security meeting this morning. I have also taken the opportunity of personally briefing the Leader of the Opposition. I stress that no final decisions have been taken, but there is a very strong disposition on the part of the government to act. But of course it will not and cannot act—and I make this very clear to the House—unless proper legislation authorising external assistance is put in place.

Our willingness to undertake an operation of this kind does represent a very significant change in regional policy. It is not in Australia's interests to have a number of failed states in the Pacific. The Solomon Islands has a long association with this country. We have been willing in the past to act as an honest broker. The Townsville peace initiatives came very much as a result of diplomatic efforts by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and I congratulate the foreign minister for the role that he played in that.

It is a challenge to the international community, and the international community naturally and understandably expects Australia to play a leading role. If we do nothing now and the Solomon Islands becomes a failed state, the challenges in the future of potential exploitation of that situation by international drug dealers, money launderers, international terrorism—all of those things—will make the inevitable dealing with the problem in the future more costly and more difficult, and we would pay very dearly for our indifference if we were to adopt that course now.