Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells
Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells Photo Parlview

 Fierravanti-Wells: On behalf of the Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, I table a ministerial statement on the conclusion of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands. I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

I’m very pleased that this statement was made yesterday during the guest of government visit by the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, the Hon. Manasseh Sogavare MP. In particular, it gives me great pride and satisfaction to note that the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, or RAMSI as it was known, concluded its mission on 30 June this year. Operation Helpem Fren ended after 14 years of Australian-led support. Australia, through governments on both sides of politics, provided the leadership and a substantial share of the human and financial resources that initiated, powered and sustained this critical and highly regarded regional intervention. It was essentially a civilian-led policing operation intended to re-establish law and order and implement the necessary governance and economic reforms to provide the Solomon Islands with a firm foundation on which to build its future security and prosperity. This was reinforced by the Solomon Islands domestic enabling legislation. RAMSI was also endorsed by the Pacific Islands Forum, so the legal foundation for its presence in the Solomon Islands was therefore very strong.

From 1998 to 2003 the Solomon Islands was being pulled apart by lawlessness, violence and rampant criminality. The causes were complex, but ethnic and provincial tensions and relocation were at the core of the conflict. By July 2003 the Solomon Islands was well on the way to becoming a failed state. Its economy had ceased to function. The state was no longer providing even the most basic of services, including water and electricity, and basic law and order had broken down. Children were not going to school and were often press-ganged into the service of marauding militants. These same militias were literally holding the government to ransom, extorting money from the state’s near-empty coffers.

So in July 2003, after much deliberation, the Howard government made the decision to help the Solomon Islands government bring the country back from the precipice. The Howard government well understood that the ills which were plaguing the Solomon Islands could quickly spread throughout the region. While RAMSI was led by Australia, its success lay in the fact that it was a genuinely regional initiative, having been established under a treaty to which all 15 contributing Pacific Island countries, including New Zealand and Australia, were parties. Our Pacific neighbours collectively contributed thousands of police, military, diplomatic and advisory personnel to the mission. It has set an important precedent and provides us with a model for future regional collaboration. RAMSI was particularly successful in achieving its immediate priority of re-establishing law and order. In the first week, more than 3,700 guns were collected and destroyed. In its third week, the surrender of renegade militants was negotiated with the help of mediators. By the end of the third year, 6,300 arrests had been made for militant and criminal activity.

In 2017 Solomon Islands presents a very different picture. Whilst islanders today face many unresolved challenges, life has long since returned to relative normality. I’ve had the privilege of visiting the Solomon Islands four times in my role as Minister for International Development and the Pacific. I have seen the national health services helping to distribute medicines in the outer provinces, I’ve seen the infrastructure developments—the roads, bridges and wharves, which provide the lifeblood of economic growth. I have seen how the women of the Solomon Islands are working together to promote private enterprise, advocate for better services and combat domestic violence. I’ve seen how Australian aid dollars are supporting these good works. The Solomon Islands is reaping the benefits of stability, with the economy having grown more than 80 per cent in the first 10 years of RAMSI. Underpinning this growth is an effective, functioning and rehabilitated police force, of which about one-third are women, which has not only been remoulded to once again provide the nation’s front line of security but has also delivered training to other police forces in the Pacific and is now contributing to UN peacekeeping in Sudan.

All of this came at a cost. More importantly, I want to acknowledge the human cost. Six RAMSI officers lost their lives over its term, including four Australians: Private Jamie Clark, 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, ADF; Adam Dunning, Protective Service Officer, Australian Federal Police; Ronald Lewis, Protective Service Officer, Australian Federal Police; and Tony Scriva, a civilian adviser to the Solomon Islands government. They will always be remembered for their sacrifice. Australia invested approximately $2.8 billion of the $3 billion cost over the 14 years of the operation. And the cost to Australia, financial and otherwise, would have been far greater had we not acted when we did.

Now it is imperative that the gains from RAMSI be preserved. Prime Minister Sogavare understands better than anyone the importance and complexities of the challenges which lie ahead, and he has dedicated himself and his government to tackling them head on. But the Solomon Islands will not do it alone, and Prime Minister Sogavare has our full support. In June this year, on behalf of the Australian government, I signed a three-year aid partnership agreement between our two countries which establishes our shared vision for cooperation to foster inclusive economic growth, poverty reduction and stability in the Solomon Islands.

Ultimately, however, to achieve these goals the Solomon Islands government will need to maintain law and order and stability for a sustained period. To this end, Australia and the Solomon Islands have worked to develop a package of assistance to consolidate bilaterally the work that RAMSI has up to now driven. This includes a policing program under which we have placed 44 AFP advisers in Honiara to mentor, train and advise the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force. This will be complemented by new bilateral programs of support for justice and governance. This package will amount to $141 million over four years, from 2017 to 2021. This is part of our overseas development assistance to the Solomon Islands, which in 2017-18 will be $142.2 million. On Monday, our governments also signed a bilateral security treaty, the first of its kind in the Pacific. The treaty will enable Australian Defence Force, police and civilian personnel to deploy operationally in emergency situations to provide security or humanitarian assistance at the Solomon Islands government’s request.

Regional security cooperation in the Solomons did not begin with RAMSI. Last week, I had the honour and privilege to represent Australia at the commemorations in Honiara marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal, including the sinking on 9 August 1942 of the first HMAS Canberra, with the loss of 84 of her crew, off Savo Island. The Canberra remains the largest Australian warship ever to have been lost in battle. I felt privileged to be at the memorial service for the Canberra, conducted on HMAS Success about 760 metres above the Canberra’s final resting place where I was joined by veterans and some veterans’ families. The Canberra rests in Ironbottom Sound, the largest maritime war grave in the world, where over 30 ships and many planes were lost. I visited Bloody Ridge, site of one of the best-known of the battles on Guadalcanal, which US Marine Corps General Neller described as hallow ground. This site has now been declared a national park by the Solomon Islands government.

Australia’s engagement in the Solomon Islands in support of the land offensive of the United States Marine Corps tied up Japanese resources that would otherwise have been deployed at Kokoda and hence turned the tide of the Pacific War. During the war, Australian Coastwatchers worked side by side with island scouts to report on movements and intentions of Japanese forces, work of vital intelligence importance to the Allies. As Australian Coastwatcher John Keenan recalled:

Without local help I don’t know what we would have done. We wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes.

The achievements of the Coastwatchers were summed up by US Fleet Admiral Halsey:

The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the South Pacific.

Given the longstanding strong ties between our nations and our peoples, in 2003 it was natural for the Solomon Islands to turn to Australia for help in its hour of need. In 2017, as RAMSI prepared to leave, it was equally natural for the Solomon Islanders to ask whether Australia would continue to stand by their side. Australia is inseparably connected to the Solomon Islands and the Pacific region, which is why we responded with a resounding yes to Helpem Fren.

Chamber Senate on 15/08/2017Item MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS – Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands Speaker: Fierravanti-Wells, Sen Concetta / Parliment Transcript used for reporting News