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The shocking reality of Downer's dirty little Solomon Islands' secret

By Duncan Kerr - posted Monday, 28 July 2003

The large Australian led police and military assistance team that soon will provide help for the troubled Solomon Islands is both welcome and needed. Yet the decision to send such a large contingent with orders to shoot to kill if required should not have been necessary.

While the Howard government has skilfully taken the moral high ground in the media, it has a dirty little secret. That dirty little secret is the history of Australia burying its head in the sand while events in Honiara escalated from a nuisance to a nation-shattering crisis.

Australia's military intervention is needed only because the key Howard ministers, three years ago, failed to act with foresight. They turned a blind eye to far more modest requests for assistance. They gave insufficient weight to evidence that growing but sporadic and limited community violence would escalate into a nation-threatening revolt.


The old proverb-A stich in time saves nine-has played itself out with tragic consequences for the casualties and dead of this policy failure.

This is not a triumph for Australian diplomacy as it has been portrayed; it is cleaning up the mess after allowing the Solomon Islands' crisis to escalate to the point it directly risks our national interests.

How do I know this? I know it because I was, by chance, on the ground when events were unfolding. In April of 2000 I visited the Solomon Islands as Deputy Leader of an Australian Parliamentary delegation, led by then Senate President, Margaret Reid.

As usual with such delegations we received briefings from officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs both before the visit and on arrival in Honiara. Problems with law and order were mentioned but without great emphasis.

We received no briefing that the government of the Solomon Islands had requested that the Australian government contribute to a Commonwealth task force of 50 police--not restricted to 'observer only'--status to assist the local authorities to restore effective policing.

It was a surprise to us, on meeting the then Prime Minister, Bartholomew Ulufa'alu, to learn that this request was at the very top of his agenda.


The Prime Minister told us that some police were out of control, morale was very low, orders by the Commissioner were regularly being ignored or flouted and that he feared the existing level of community violence could escalate into a nation-threatening series of movements towards separation. On the other hand, the Prime Minister indicated that, for the moment, the numbers of armed militants were very small and that the vast majority of the community were still disposed towards a peaceful solution.

The Prime Minister said that the Leader of the Opposition would support the need for outside police assistance. When the delegation met with the Leader of the Opposition, he agreed that the Prime Minister's request should be pressed with the Australian Government.

The delegation also raised this matter with the Chief Justice of the Solomon Islands to seek his views in relation to the matter. While the Chief Justice was careful to express himself in terms consistent with his judicial responsibilities, he indicated that he perfectly understood the Prime Minister's concern about the capacity of the Solomon Islands Police Force to undertake security responsibilities in the present circumstance and the benefits that would arise if a Commonwealth contribution of the kind sought by the Prime Minister could be provided.

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This article was first published in The Canberra Times on 24 July 2003.

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About the Author

Hon. Duncan Kerr is Federal member for Denison (Tas) and was Federal Attorney General and Minister for Justice in the Keating government. He is author of Elect the Ambassador: Building Democracy in a Globalised World.

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