Doorstop Interview, Honiara, Solomon Islands

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The Hon Richard Marles MP

Deputy Prime Minister

Minister for Defence

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02 6277 7800

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29 June 2023

SUBJECTS: Visit to Solomon Islands; AUKUS; Relationship with Solomon Islands; Climate change.

RICHARD MARLES, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: It’s fantastic to be standing here in front of the RSIPV Taro, one of the two Guardian-class Patrol Boats Australia has gifted the Solomon Islands. This forms part of a program of patrol boats that we provide around the Pacific. The Taro is one of the best performing patrol boats within the program, and it was a real honour to be able to be on board today to see its capability and meet its crew. And it forms forms a critical part of the assistance that we provide to the Solomon Islands and to the RSIPF.

Part of my visit today is announcing a replenishment – a replacement of the small boat fleet of the RSIPF, some of which are on this pier. These are critical boats for the RSIPF, much smaller but they are the equivalent of the Solomon Islands’ police car given this is a maritime country. In addition to that, we are participating in the refurbishment of just about every one of the small boat facilities around the country and we are very proud to be a part of that. This morning at King George VI School we announced our support for the refurbishment of the dormitories there as part of the athlete accommodation there for the Pacific Games. The legacy that will provide to that school and six other schools around Honiara for boarding students after the Games is huge. At King George VI School alone, there will be a capacity in those refurbished dormitories to house 500 students in an ongoing way. And in refurbishing of that program alone 1,000 local jobs have been created. From here, we visit the Number 9 Hospital where as part of our $35 million health commitment to Solomon Islands, we will be announcing the establishment of the 14 bed high dependency unit, which is going to provide a really important capability for that hospital. And as part of this trip, as well, we have announced a $25 million commitment to next year's elections in Solomon Islands, which will be critically important for the country, obviously. But that support will be vitally important to enable those elections to happen in a manner which is free and fair and peaceful.

Yesterday, I met with the Prime Minister, we had a really productive meeting, during which we affirmed to each other just how important the relationship was for both countries. And from Australia's point of view, we see Solomon Islands as front and centre of our worldview, as being right in the top tier of countries and relationships that go through Australia's national interests. Solomon Islands matters to Australia and my visit here is about affirming that. And that was very clear in the conversation that we had yesterday. And what also became very clear is that the long-standing relationship which has existed between Solomon Islands and Australia, where Australia really is the natural partner of choice is a relationship that both sides want to continue.

JOURNALIST: Minister, did you raise the possibility of Australian troops and police staying beyond December this year with Mr. Sogavare, and did the Prime Minister say Solomon Islands was likely to agree to that?

MARLES: We spoke about the Solomons’ International Assistance Force of which Australia is a contributing member. And we made clear that if it was the Solomons’ wish for SIAF to continue, then Australia stood ready for that to occur, and that we were happy to support a continuation of the SIAF’s presence in supporting the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force as necessary. Obviously, this is a matter for Solomon Islands. But we wanted to make completely clear that from the perspective of Australia, we stood ready for that support to be provided for as long as possible. And we obviously know that there are a couple of really big events coming up for Solomon Islands, the Pacific Games in November is critical and making sure that the security environment around that is peaceful is obviously a key objective of the country. But so too is the peaceful conduct of the elections in April of next year. And so we're very mindful that an ongoing SIAF assistance could be of assistance to Solomon Islands. And we've certainly made clear that we are ready to provide that if Solomon Islands wanted it.

JOURNALIST: There was a ground-breaking ceremony in 2021, what’s the latest on (inaudible)?

MARLES: The Western Border Outpost? Yeah, well, the Western Border Outpost is a really important project for Solomon Islands and a very significant part of our cooperation. We did speak about that today with Minister Veke, and it's actually progressing well. There are a number of approvals, environmental approvals, which still need to be obtained. But really significant work has progressed here. And this is obviously a complex project, but one which is really central to Solomon Islands’ both maritime and border, security. So we're actually – both sides are pleased with the progress of the Western Border Outpost. And it continues to be a significant part of our assistance to the RSIPF.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible). But my question is around AUKUS. I've been traveling in the Pacific recently, and I've seen mostly about the effects atomic bombs have on Pacific Islanders and then World War Two as well. And what the Pacific Islander, including Solomon Islanders, are saying is that you will never before in the history have we seen China (inaudible). So the question is what really are the threats to us in the Pacific and why the need for Australia to acquire Nuclear Submarines?

MARLES: Well, thanks for the question. I mean, firstly, this is my 10th visit to Solomon Islands. And it is really good to be back. And Honiara, as you say, is a peaceful, beautiful place. And it is really wonderful to be back here. AUKUS and Australia requiring a nuclear powered submarine capability is very important in terms of Australia's own national security, but principally because what it represents is Australia's contribution to the collective security of the region in which we all live, the Pacific and Southeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific, as well as our contribution to the maintenance of the global rules-based order as it is expressed within the Indo Pacific. And that is at the heart of the capability that we are seeking to acquire. Now we're really mindful of the sensitivity that exists rightly within the Pacific. This is not Australia acquiring nuclear weapons, it's very important to understand that. The Rarotonga Treaty, which provides for nuclear weapons free Pacific, Australia was a signatory to, we've made really clear to the governments of the Pacific including Solomon Islands, that we have no intention of ever acquiring a nuclear weapon, nor will nuclear weapons ever be operating from Australia. And so we are completely confident that we will maintain our obligations under the Treaty of Rarotonga in walking down the pathway of acquiring a nuclear-powered but conventionally-armed submarine capability for our nation. And I think that message which we've provided, not just to the Pacific, but throughout ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific is a message that has been well received. And we are very comfortable with the reaction that we've received from the Solomon Islands Government about our acquiring this capability.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible)

MARLES: Well, we're excited about it. And we did speak about that yesterday. The Bilateral Security Treaty that we have between our two countries is now a number of years old. And it really does need to be reviewed to take into account the contemporary security environment and the contemporary assistance that has been provided by Australia in support of the RSIPF and the security of Solomon lands. For example, when the Bilateral Security Treaty was first signed, SIAF didn't exist. And so we think taking this opportunity to update the Bilateral Security Treaty to comprehend our current assistance is a really exciting opportunity to revitalise the security relationship between our two countries.

JOURNALIST: Just on that issue, did Mr. Sogavare give you any indication on what changes he wants to see in the security treaty? Is there a chance that if SIAF is wound back that more Chinese police could be deployed?

MARLES: Well, in terms of the first question, no is the answer, other than we both thought that it was important to have the Bilateral Security Treaty reflect the contemporary security environment and the contemporary level of assistance that is being provided by Australia to Solomon Islands’ security. I mean, obviously the relationship that Solomons has with China is a matter for Solomons and China. Our focus is simply on being the very best partner that we can be. That's very much been my message. And we – you know, Australia's posture is to seek to be the natural partner of choice. And we do think that there is much that we can offer in relation to security, through support for the RSIPF, and I think that sentiment was shared.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible).

MARLES: I don’t think I’ve been briefed on that, sorry.

JOURNALIST: With the Pacific Games coming up, (inaudible) what would be the response if Solomon Islands have Chinese police on the ground on a much bigger scale than what is currently seen?

MARLES: Well, in the conversations that we had, that is not what is being proposed. What we made clear was that we were willing to support Solomon Islands in whatever way was needed around the operational policing and security during the Pacific Games. And that support can come in whatever way Solomon Islands wants. And that offer was very well received. We feel comfortable, very comfortable, with the relationship that we have with Solomon Islands, in relation to policing, and specifically in the way in which policing will be undertaken and security will be provided during the Pacific Games.

JOURNALIST: Mr. Sogavare wants a review of the security treaty with Australia, will this review ensure that our response time is quicker? Because when the last riot happened, we were all here at that time, the troops got here, half of the city was already raised to the ground.

MARLES: All of those details we will work through as part of the review of the Bilateral Security Treaty. Obviously, response times is a fundamental issue that we need to be talking about, and we certainly will and working through. But that'll be a matter that is determined as we work through the review of the Bilateral Security Treaty.

JOURNALIST: Is this a review of the entire security treaty, or just the SIAF program?

MARLES: No, the entirety of the treaty. And I mean, it's an updating and a refresh of it. And we see this is a really positive opportunity for both of our countries.

JOURNALIST: The government mentioned something about more attention needed on visa waiver (inaudible)

MARLES: Yeah. The question of visas came up in a number of meetings. In my meeting with Minister Shanel who was representing the Foreign Minister during my visit. And we really understand the desire that exists in Solomon Islands around seeing easier to access to Australia. And this is a conversation that we will very much continue to have with Solomon Islands, we are open minded about this. It's a similar conversation that we are having with other countries in the Pacific and in Melanesia, such as PNG, and Vanuatu. But I would just reiterate that we went to the last election in Australia, with a policy around having the Pacific Engagement Visa, which we are in the process of putting in place, which will be the first visa specifically targeted to the Pacific, which will give rise to a pathway towards permanent residency. And it's an example of the way in which we are seeking to work on our visa system in a way which is more accessible and more advantageous for the countries of the Pacific and for the Solomon Islands. And so this will continue to be a conversation, I think it was a good dialogue that we had in relation to this particular question, but it's certainly an important part of the relationship.

JOURNALIST: I think for the topics mentioned in the PR (inaudible) was Australia's support towards labour mobility and renewable energy. Could you elaborate more on that?

MARLES: Well the labour mobility program has been really important. There's now about 5,000, Solomon Islanders who are in Australia, who are doing great work for the Australian economy. And in that sense, Australia was deeply grateful. But their remittances back to Solomon Islands, I think now has been estimated to be the equivalent of about 3 per cent of Solomon Islands’ GDP. So it's a huge contribution to the Solomon Islands economy. And we've met up numerous people who have been on this program, both in Australia and in the Pacific and the benefits that this provides to people's villages, providing them with savings, which may enable and will, for example, set up a small business back home. It's transformational. And so we're really committed to this program to seeing it grow. The fastest growing cohort within the program comes from Solomon Islands. And so it's really important as well in terms of building those people to people links between our two countries and making us even closer than we already are.

In respect of renewable energy. You will know that the Albanese Government has a very different position on climate change than the former government in Australia. That is both in terms of our own emission reduction schedule, about genuinely getting to net zero emissions by 2050, and having a clear, credible and articulated pathway towards that which we are moving along now. A key part of that is about investment in the renewable sector so that that becomes a bigger part of our own electricity grid. But part of it also is about playing our part in helping the Pacific tell its story to the world as countries which are on the front line of climate change. And I'm really aware speaking to counterparts throughout the Pacific that when we talk about questions of security, the most existential form of insecurity that people feel relates to climate change, and that the Pacific desperately needs global action on this and the Pacific desperately needs support in relation to measures which can mitigate it. And again, we are very committed to increasing Australia's support in that regard.


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