TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH LIAM FOX, ABC
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 26 April 2012
TOPICS: Anzac Day, RAMSI
LIAM FOX: Minister, you had discussions with the Solomon Islands Prime Minister what were the- what’s the subject of those discussions?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well they really were in three parts. Firstly, just reaffirming the strength and warmth of the relationship between Australia and the Solomon Islands. I was in Papua New Guinea yesterday for ANZAC Day, commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the Kokoda Campaign but for Solomon Islands it’s also a very significant year the anniversary of the battle of Guadalcanal, significant naval, air and land battles here and that really started the modern Australia-Solomon Islands relationship.
The next area of discussion was the Prime Minister and I are very keen to explore enhancing the Australia-Solomon Islands relationship on the defence and military front. The Solomon Islands does not have a defence force, but we want to examine whether there are things that we can do by way of an Australian defence cooperation program some of the things the RAMSI contingent are doing here include exercises and training on some of the outlying islands so we want to see whether we can enhance that so far as by the bilateral relationship between Australia and Solomons is concerned.
Thirdly and finally, we spoke about the success of the RAMSI mission, and how that’s been a very good force for stabilisation and peace and security over the last ten years. But we have a shared analysis which is that the focus now of the RAMSI contribution has really moved to a police, law and justice and a public order focus, and that places a heavy emphasis on the training and capability of the Solomon Islands Police Force.
So we’ve come to a conclusion that the time has now come to start the discussion about the military or defence component of RAMSI transitioning out of the Solomon Islands. That involves Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Tonga. I’ve spoken to my New Zealand counterpart, and we agree that it’s a sensible thing to now begin that conversation with a view to the military component of RAMSI transitioning out of Solomon Islands in an orderly and sensible way certainly not before next year.
In terms of a time table, we have an agreed a timetable- we’re looking at not before the middle of next year, retaining the very significant focus on police, the training and the capability and the capacity of the Solomon Islands police force and the police component both from Australia and all of the other Pacific Island countries will of course continue into the foreseeable future.
LIAM FOX: You’ve touched on it briefly- but I know its early days what sort of timeline are we looking at.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the discussion I had with the Prime Minister- we were proceeding on the basis of not before the middle of next year. We now need to do the exhaustive analysis. We have a shared analysis which is that the focus of RAMSI, the focus of the Solomon Islands has shifted to public order, law and order, law and justice. That’s the mainstream police function. And so we will now go into the detailed assessment of a drawdown and ultimate withdrawal of our military and Defence component.
It won’t occur overnight, and we don’t want to do it overnight. In the meantime, our military and Defence component of RAMSI is held effectively in reserve, and to be used in situations where the Solomon Islands Police Force and RAMSI Police Force aren’t able to cope. Now we haven’t seen such examples for a number of years, but we need to do the detailed and exhaustive work. But as a rule of thumb we are looking at the second half of next year.
LIAM FOX: We know what benefit the ADF presence here has had, but what benefit has it had to the ADF being here?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s seen us working closely on the ground here, not just with the agencies of the Solomon Islands and the Solomon Islands people but also seen us working closely with our New Zealand colleagues, no surprise there, but working closely on the ground with Papua New Guinea Defence Force members and Tongan Defence Force members.
The conversation the Prime Minister and I had was that given that experience over the last ten years it doesn’t make sense from a bilateral perspective for Australia and the Solomon Islands to not take advantage of that experience, and that’s why we want to see whether we can develop a bilateral Defence cooperation program which opens up the prospect of exercises and training by Australia here, potentially opens up the prospect of ship visits and the like.
But again, we need to do that detailed work, but that’s also consistent with our view that in the course of this decade as we draw down as the rest of the international community is, our presence in Afghanistan and the Middle East, there will necessarily be a focus back into the Pacific, back into our own backyard. And there are considerable advantages in thinking about continuing on a bilateral basis- our capacity to have a presence, from time to time on exercises and training in and with the Solomon Islands.
LIAM FOX: I guess the fact that we’ve reached this point where can we start discussions about draw down is it’s been a job well done, mission accomplished.
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely- the starting point of the discussion I had with the Prime Minister was a considerable successful achievement by the military defence component of RAMSI. There’s no doubt the last decade apart from some very regrettable incidents date back in 2006.
We have seen stability largely returned to the Solomon Islands. What we now need to do is to make sure that we build and grow the capability, the capacity, the numbers of Solomon Islands Police Force so that they can ultimately take responsibility for all these issues themselves. Like any peace and stabilisation force it can’t be here forever. We don’t have a timetable or a process for the ultimate draw down of our Police contribution. I suspect that’ll be here for sometimes.
We come to the conclusion that the good work which the Defence Forces of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Tonga have done over a decade is now coming to a conclusion, the police role can take that over but from a Australian perspective we’d like to continue the potential of a close work relationship with the Solomon Islands far as training and excises in the Solomon Islands is concerned.
LIAM FOX: And just speaking to people this morning there is a certain degree of nervousness in Solomon Islands amongst Solomon Islanders about transition away RAMSI and people are worried that SIPF is not able to handle it themselves-
STEPHEN SMITH: And that’s why the basis of the discussion with the Prime Minister is that we’re going to do this in an orderly way, in a transparent way, in a considered and methodical way. I will also underline the point that they will continue to be a substantial contribution so far as RAMSI’s police force presence is concerned.
At the moment for example we have a less then 150 military and defence personnel we got to nearly 200 members of the police contingent so far as RAMSI is concerned. So that police contingent will stay for the foreseeable future and as well I think’ll be of some comfort to the people of the Solomon Islands, that the Prime Minister and I are in discussions about an on going Defence cooperation relationship between Australia and the Solomon Islands and the prospect into the future from time to time Australia Defence personnel doing excises and training in the Solomon Islands.
But one of the reasons we are doing this in the public way, we are doing it in a transparent way is to make sure that the government of the Solomon Islands carries with it the confidence of the Solomon Islands people and when they understand that there is no change to the police arrangement it will continue to be a significant investment in the training and capability of the Solomon Islands Police and I think they would be able to rest assure that the components of RAMSI will change but the international presence and the police contribution will continue.