10 August 2022
Subjects: Solomon Islands hosting Pacific Games; Delaying election; China-Taiwan relations.
Patricia Karvelas: Canberra's diplomatic offensive in the Pacific is gathering pace with the Federal Government announcing more than $17 million to help Solomon Islands host the Pacific Games. The nation's government is using the event as a reason to delay next year's election and it has alarmed opposition MPs.
Speaking on RN Breakfast this morning the Chair of the Parliament's Foreign Relations Committee Peter Kenilorea Junior suggested Australia could help fund the election.
Peter Kenilorea Jr: Perhaps use the United Nations as the vehicle through which money can be channelled to help us have our own elections as well, because sport is important, but our democratic principles need to be respected and continued as well and upheld.
Patricia Karvelas: The Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, has just wrapped up a trip to Honiara where he met with the Prime Minister there too. Pat Conroy, welcome to the program.
Minister for Defence Industry: Good morning, Patricia.
Patricia Karvelas: Prime Minister Sogavare's office says they don't have the resources to host the Games and to hold the election so close together. They've cited basically an ability to pay as the reason. Opposition MPs have suggested Australia could help fund the election. Are you open to that?
Minister for Defence Industry: Well, Patricia, I've just come back as you said from a four-day trip to the Solomon Islands where I was there for the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Guadalcanal campaign. I met with a number of Solomon Island Ministers and the Prime Minister and visited projects that Australia is supporting. So, it was a very successful trip.
Regarding your question about the Parliamentary bill that's being debated right now, it's very important to say that ultimately this is a question for the Solomon Islands Parliament and the Solomon Islands. The bill and the process have a long way to play out. There are a number of steps ahead of it. It was only tabled last week, and my understanding is that it won't be debated in the Solomon Islands Parliament for at least another four weeks. So it's very important that we respect the process, and ultimately it is a question for the members of the Solomon Islands Parliament and the people of the Solomon Islands.
Patricia Karvelas: But the reason that's been cited by the Government is not being able to afford it. Now the opposition has come up with a solution which is that Australia could step in. Will you make that money available? Will you share with the government that you could step in there if that was the problem?
Minister for Defence Industry: Well one member of the opposition has suggested that. I note that, for example, the leader of the opposition instead is encouraging the people of the Solomon Islands to make submissions through the Parliamentary process. So I think it's very important that we respect the internal processes of other countries and go from there.
Patricia Karvelas: Okay.
Minister for Defence Industry: Historically, we have provided funding for elections and if asked we would consider such a request. But again, let me repeat, ultimately this is a matter to be resolved by the democratically elected Parliament of the Solomon Islands.
Patricia Karvelas: That's interesting you say if asked you would consider it and you've done it before. Would the request have to come from the Prime Minister?
Minister for Defence Industry: Well our development partnerships are with governments of other countries throughout the Pacific. Ultimately, we listen to the priorities and the needs of our development partners. So it is not for Australia to unilaterally come in and start spending money on projects.
It's ultimately a question for the democratically elected government of the Solomon Islands what their priorities are and that's why we're partnering on things like education. I helped open a refurbished school a couple of days ago and got to meet some great kids whose future is looking a bit brighter because of the investments from the New Zealand, Australian and Solomon Islands Governments.
So I met with returned workers from the Pacific Labour Scheme that's injecting huge amounts of money into Pacific economies right now when it's desperately needed.
Ultimately if Australia is to be a partner of choice for the Pacific we have to listen to the needs and priorities of the people and governments of the Pacific islands, and that's what we'll do.
Patricia Karvelas: Would Australia be concerned about the delaying of an election?
Minister for Defence Industry: Well, we obviously make the point that there's a long way to go in this process and it's important that the proposed change goes through the Solomon Islands Parliamentary process. We also welcome the assurance from the Prime Minister and the language of the bill that ensures that if this is passed it will be a one‑off and the schedule for elections returns to the normal four-year cycle.
Obviously, we believe that having regular election cycles is a key aspect of democratic norms and values which we share across the region. But let me repeat my first point. Ultimately this is a question for the democratic elected members of the Solomon Islands Parliament and the people of the Solomon Islands, and we are going to respect the internal processes of neighbouring countries.
Patricia Karvelas: If there is unrest as a result of this, the security pact Solomon Islands signed with China earlier this year allows Beijing to provide security for Chinese businesses and restore social order. Do you read that as giving China the ability to step in if there is unrest?
Minister for Defence Industry: Well I'm not going to engage in hypothetical scenarios of things passed in Parliament. I will make the point that Prime Minister Sogavare and his Ministers have assured myself and other members of the Australian Government that Australia is the security partner of choice.
I had some very fruitful discussions with both the Prime Minister and Police Minister Anthony Veke where they assured us that if there are any gaps in the Solomon Islands security needs, they will come to Australia first to fill them. For example, we're building border outposts in both the western and eastern borders to support their patrol boat and police activities. We're supporting other activities to increase training capacity within the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force. So, I accept the assurances of the Solomon Islands Government that if there are security gaps they'll come first to Australia as their security partner of choice.
Patricia Karvelas: Some see Prime Minister Sogavare's decision not to attend that ceremony commemorating the battle as a snub to the new US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and to the US. Were you surprised he didn't go?
Minister for Defence Industry: Well, I think I do agree with Wendy Sherman, the US Deputy Secretary of State, that perhaps there was a missed opportunity to engage in that process. But all I can say is I was delighted by the level of Solomon Islands representation. We had a strong level of Ministers there and they all contributed ‑‑
Patricia Karvelas: But not the Prime Minister.
Minister for Defence Industry: They represented the Solomon Islands Government with real dignity and respect for the occasions. Ultimately that's a question for the Solomon Islands Prime Minister. I understand that there was a question of protocol that there were no heads of state represented there and so the advice was that it would not be appropriate.
But, ultimately, I was overwhelmed by the hospitality and friendship of the Solomon Islands people and Government in commemorating these very solemn occasions. And we shouldn't ignore the fact that it just wasn't Americans and Australians and New Zealanders who were fighting in that campaign and tragically lost their lives. I spoke at the memorial to the Solomon Islands Scouts and Coastwatchers who risked their lives, and in fact some lost their lives, reporting on Japanese movements and rescuing allied personnel. It was very emotional to witness US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy meeting the son and daughter‑in‑law of one of the two Solomon Islands men who rescued her father John F. Kennedy after his boat PT109 was sunk in the Solomon Islands. So, these were very moving occasions. The Solomon Islands Government was well represented, and they were a very generous and welcoming host.
Patricia Karvelas: James Marape has been sworn in again as PNG's Prime Minister after national elections but vote counting is continuing in more than half the seats. Do you welcome his re‑election?
Minister for Defence Industry: I absolutely congratulate James Marape on his re‑election as Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister and we really look forward to working with his Government to further deepen the relationship with our nearest neighbour and valued partner. Prime Minister Albanese and I had some very good discussions with Prime Minister Marape at the Pacific Islands Forum last month and we really look forward to continuing and deepening that relationship.
Patricia Karvelas: He's described the violence that marred the election campaign as minor, but analysts have called the election the worst they've ever seen. Australia provides assistance for PNG's elections. Do we need to offer security or peacekeeping for elections? Are you concerned about those reports?
Minister for Defence Industry: Well we are concerned about election related and tribal violence and the loss of life in PNG was obviously very sad. We have supported the PNG Government to conduct the elections, including for our partner with the PNG police and the PNG Defence Force. We stand ready to provide further support in future elections if it's needed. But ultimately, we are delighted that the democratic process has been concluded and we congratulate Prime Minister Marape. The violence and loss of life was sad and tragic, absolutely. And if more resources need to be provided, we're happy to discuss that.
Patricia Karvelas: Just finally, Taiwan is warning that China's desire to reunify it with the mainland is about gaining access to the western Pacific. Do you share that view?
Minister for Defence Industry: Oh, I'm not going to comment about the motivations of other governments, I'm not their representative. I just simply repeat the points that Foreign Minister Penny Wong has made, which is that we are very focused on the call to reduce the temperature in that part of the world. We urge restraint and de‑escalation. It's in the whole region's interests for stability to be restored. We again support the status quo and are very firm in our views that there should be no unilateral change to the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.
Patricia Karvelas: In your visit was Taiwan raised with you?
Minister for Defence Industry: No, it wasn't. Our visit was very much focused on how Australia can continue to be the security and development partner of choice for the Solomon Islands and the huge opportunities for both countries to work towards the peace and prosperity of the entire Pacific. It was a really joyful trip where we really got to concentrate on practical things that we are doing right now to support the people of Solomon Islands, whether it's through economic development in the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme which brings millions into the Solomon Islands economy and fills skills shortages here, or whether it's supporting the education of young men and women in their school system and investment in their hospitals. So, it was a really interesting and encouraging trip and Taiwan did not come up.
Patricia Karvelas: Thank you so much for your time.
Minister for Defence Industry: Thanks Patricia, have a good morning.
Patricia Karvelas: The Minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy.