Australia's Dominance Drives Wedge Among Pacific Nations
By Selwyn Manning in Nadi, Fiji
See Also, 95bFM Audio: Scoop's Selwyn Manning talks to bFM's Noelle McCarthy from the Pacific Island Leaders Forum.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has positioned to broker a solution to an impasse between Australia and the Melanesian Spearhead Group of nations (MSG) – of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Fiji.
On arriving in Nadi, Fiji, for the Pacific Islands Leaders' Forum, a silent Helen Clark immediately sought a briefing on a clash between the Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Melanesian leaders.
On exiting the briefing, she entered back-to-back meetings with Howard and Fiji's Prime Minister, Laisenia Qarase.
Then armed with information, Helen Clark told reporters that as chair of the Forum, Fiji's Qarase wished to "distinguish between the issues" surrounding the regional mission to the Solomon Islands, the wider support for this mission among Pacific Forum leaders, and any issues Australia and the Solomon Islands may have bilaterally.
What then followed was a fast-track strategy that saw Clark meet on Monday night with six Pacific leaders, and, Pacific Islands Forum secretary general Greg Urwin, in a bid to keep the Forum on track.
Helen Clark's move was to support Fiji in ring-fencing the stand-off between Australia and the Solomons, keeping the issue separate from the Pacific Forum as a whole. The strategy was designed to prevent the 2006 Forum from becoming divisive and a one-issue meeting.
However, what had been kept from Helen Clark, was that Qarase was about to announce he had signed a joint statement that had been issued by the MSG leaders and that he supported its position demanding Australia be disempowered of its dominant role in RAMSI.
That move certainly clouds Qarase's role as chair of the Forum and levels responsibility for brokering a solution squarely at the feet of Helen Clark.
Australia's estrangement among Melanesian Pacific leaders has been intensifying for months, but problem became acute after Solomon Islands PM Manasseh Sogavare learnt on Friday (October 20) that a raid on his office had occurred and it was his belief that the operation had been led by Australian Police.
And after arriving in Nadi, John Howard, moved to ease tensions saying his government had much respect for the current Solomons government. He denied that Australian police had led the raid on Sovagare's office and suggested it was Solomon Islands police that had conducted the raid. Howard added the raid was conducted according to Solomon Islands law and that officers did hold a legal warrant.
But Sogavare insisted the Police raided his office under Australia's orders, and that the Australian government is responsible for the act which he and the other MSG leaders call "provocative, uncalled for, and unnecessary".
During the raid, officers took a fax machine as evidence for its case against suspended Attorney-General Julian Moti, who faces child sex charges in Australia. Sogavare told reporters that if "they" (Australia) wanted the fax, all Australia had to do was ask for it.
The MSG leaders said proper courtesies and protocols "could have been observed" adding "These actions are certainly a serious violation of Solomon Islands territorial sovereignty and integrity, and are inconsistent with the UN Charter of the Respect for the Principles of Sovereignty".
The leaders said Australia's action has brought "disrespect to the operations of RAMSI" in the Solomon Islands and "tainted the good image and credibility of RAMSI".
Sogavare said RAMSI had its place and had a job to do "to maintain law and order", but said Australia had become too dominant in Solomon Islands affairs and ought to back away from dominating the mission.
Then after meetings with John Howard, and Helen Clark, Fiji's Qarase - had previously withheld his signature from the document - informed journalists he had already signed the joint MSD statement: "and that means I support that particular statement." Qarase added: "Here we have a regional body… doing something in a country in which they operate. It is a question of whether that amounts to interference to the sovereignty of another government."
Today, fallout from the raid continues to disrupt this year's Pacific Island Forum, where it was initially expected leaders of the Pacific would seal a regionalisation deal mapped out in Auckland, New Zealand in 2005 and later expanded on at last year's forum in Papua New Guinea.
Helen Clark's challenge last night was to find common ground among the MSG nations and the Howard government – so the Forum plan could assume its momentum.
Australia's wealth and investment in RAMSI is a crucial factor in assuring it continues its dominant role in the Pacific.
Helen Clark said John Howard wants RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands) to continue, New Zealand wants the regional mission to continue "and we can't see it is viable without Australia. It has to be remembered Australia is currently putting around quarter of a billion Australian dollars a year into the Solomon Islands, of which only 25-30 million is bilateral aid. So the regional mission is very largely financed by Australia". Helen Clark added that all of the Pacific Forum states "bought into the regional mission, it is not then for the host government to unilaterally abrogate the understandings.
"We will be looking for a way forward, which is inclusive of all the Forum, and we do think the job of the regional mission is not yet done," Helen Clark said.
But the MSG leaders clearly want Australia to play a less dominant role in RAMSI.
The distance between Australia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu over RAMSI remains palpable.
Of these Island leaders, PNG's PM Sir Michael Somare, and Solomon Islands PM Sogavare are the most vocal and want to disarm Australia of its influence and dominance in Pacific affairs.
Sogavare believes Australia has moved to control the judiciary in the Solomons under the guise of RAMSI. Sir Michael Somare says Australia's style of regional assistance is akin to bully tactics.
Sogavare plans to table a five-point-plan at the Pacific Leaders retreat today, and Fiji's PM Laisenia Qarase said last night he is confident that a consensus is achievable "in the Pacific way".
The raid on Sogavare's office led to a three hour-long closed door meeting on Sunday between Fiji's PM Laisenia Qarase, PNG's PM Sir Michael Somare, Vanuatu's PM, Ham Lini, and, Solomon Islands PM Manasseh Sogavare.
Initially, PNG was expected to exit the meeting condemning Australia but clearly an accord among the four MSG nations remained elusive. A joint statement was promised but did not eventuate. Hours passed. Qarase left the meeting refusing to answer questions.
Finally on Monday a joint statement was issued. It included Qarase's name but the Fijian PM had not signed it. Later he told Fiji's press that he was confident the issue would be dealt with and settled by the Pacific Islands Forum leaders when they gathered in Fiji on Tuesday. But as Monday progressed, and after meetings with John Howard, and Helen Clark, Qarase informed journalists: "I have already signed it and that means I support that particular statement."
Fiji had initially refused to sign the statement, late yesterday Fijian officials said a second statement would be issued, containing "amendments" to the original and Qarase was now prepared to sign it. Indeed he did, however, the statement was identical to the original that expressed outrage and anger at how Australia was acting out its regional mission role in the Solomon Islands.
Solomons Star reported on Friday Sogavare had accused his Police Commissioner Shane Castles and Solicitor General, Nathan Moshinsky, QC, of spearheading the arrest of immigration minister Peter Shanel, further warning he would "deal with both officials" for “unnecessary humiliation of a government minister” and reminding them that they were "answerable" to the Solomon Islands government.
The Police Commissioner and Solicitor-General are both Australians.
They had ordered Shanel's arrest charging him with attempting to pervert the course of justice, giving false information to a police officer and giving false information to a public servant.
Sogavare accused them as being influenced by their “ultimate loyalty to Canberra who pays their salaries”.
Solomons Star reported both Castles and Moshinsky as saying they had done nothing more than uphold the rule of law and fulfil the constitutional and statutory responsibilities and pointing out "there is such a thing as the separation of powers".