The strong parliamentary vote of confidence in Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is a sign that the Howard Government’s Pacific intervention strategy is facing collapse.
The Solomons vote came after Sogavare’s Government expelled the Australian High Commissioner for political interference, faced down the Howard Government over the Moti affair, and seemed on the verge of winding up the Australian “police-and-finance” RAMSI project. The parliament backed Sogavare’s defiance of Australia, with a vote of 28 to 17.
Just as the Australian police and army presence has reached its highest point in the region, political rejection of Howard’s “regional assistance” is hardening in the Solomon Islands, Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea. Pacific leaders are re-assessing the costs of Australian patronage.
At the root of this patronage, and behind the talk of “good governance”, is the fairly standard colonial demand for privileged access to natural resources, a crippling of public institution and human resource building through a doctrine of “open markets”, and “strategic denial” of potential competitors.
Being a neo-colonial project, it requires compliant regimes. Yet the Solomons has turned against Howard, Papua New Guinea under Michael Somare has become increasingly assertive and, after a partisan intervention in Timor Leste’s crisis, Australia faces the likely re-election in 2007 of an Alkatiri-led Fretilin Government.
In the face of the Australian claims, all three neighbouring countries have made some moves to extract better value from their natural resources (oil, gas, mining, forests), to develop some policy areas that Australia has failed to support (rice production, public health programs), and to diversify their development assistance partners (China, Malaysia, Japan, Cuba, Taiwan).
More specific elements of the Australian “regional assistance” plan have sought to embed Australian finance bureaucrats, marginalise Pacific armed forces and build up Australian-sponsored police forces. Yet these police programs have backfired in PNG and the Solomons.
The Enhanced Cooperation Program (ECP) was forced on a reluctant PNG Government in 2004, only to be scuttled by a legal challenge. Canberra bureaucrats had failed to read the PNG Constitution, which does not allow US-style immunities. Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, seemed surprised at the “refusal” of the Papua New Guineans to amend their Constitution, for his convenience.
Much was made of the ECP’s proposed A$800 million “contribution” to PNG. In fact, as Aid/Watch pointed out, A$734 million of this was destined for Australian Federal Police wages and logistics. PNG has grown sick of such “boomerang aid”. PNG Police Association President, Robert Ali, said most of his 300 officers at a Port Moresby meeting wanted the Australian ECP police to leave. Two hundred overpaid Australian police were unlikely to add much, and were mostly a reassuring gesture to Australian investors in PNG.
After the collapse of the ECP, Michael Somare made this point: “We would like to remove the umbilical cord of depending [on] Australia and diversify our relations with the region and the world”. It’s not clear that Canberra understands what lies behind this message.
Recent conflict with the Solomons centred around a proposed inquiry into the 2006 riots. The Howard Government seemed determined to avoid any sheeting of blame to the RAMSI force. Yet as Honiara Bishop Terry Roberts wrote, “the ‘spark’ that sent the rioters into central Honiara was the use of tear gas by the Australian RAMSI contingent”. Australian police ignored a plea by Speaker of Parliament, Peter Kenilorea, not to use tear gas on the people. Bishop Roberts observes “Honiara people have never liked the Australian RAMSI contingent [who are] sullen and hostile … ‘Helpim fren’ has turned into ‘Spoilem fren’.”
Apart from inept policing, the RAMSI intervention is seen to have been partisan, in propping up the former Kemekza-Rini Government, to have backed big expatriate Chinese commercial interests (such as the Pacific Casino Hotel) and to have done nothing about illegal logging. Regional watchdog magazine Masalai I tokaut notes that, after the RAMSI mission arrived, logging tripled but “government revenues remained largely static”.