FRAN KELLY:

Today marks the end of the 14 year Australian-lead mission in the Solomon Islands known as RAMSI. It stands for the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands. This mission began after years of violent ethnic tensions in the Pacific island state, and has been widely hailed as a success – it’s brought peace to a country that was on the brink of collapse. But RAMSI – the whole mission hasn’t been with its critics either, who say that peace has come with a hefty price tag for Australia – around $2.8 billion. There are also lives lost. Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific; she’s just returned from the capital of the Solomon Islands, Honiara, where she took part in the festivities to mark this occasion. Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, welcome to RN Breakfast.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Good morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY:

Minister, you’re just back from the Solomons, what’s the mood there now? Are they optimistic, is there a sense or a confidence that this peace will last?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well there is… It was really good to be part of this very, very historic event to mark the end of RAMSI and to celebrate the joint achievements of RAMSI, not just with the Government of the Solomon Islands and the people of the Solomon Islands, but with our regional partners who participated in the mission over the 14 years. It’s a mixed sense I have to say. Certainly, there’s a lot of optimism. The reassurance of the RAMSI contingent staying on is very good. We really noticed that people were very, very happy with what happened, happy that RAMSI was there, happy with what RAMSI achieved, but while RAMSI itself may be ending our commitment to the Solomon Islands, peace and stability will remain. We have 44 unarmed AFP advisers who will remain, and Australia and the Solomon Islands will shortly finalised a bilateral security agreement to cover that sort of post-RAMSI period.

FRAN KELLY:

There were 15 nations involved in RAMSI. Australia was the leader of the operation, but are all those countries pulling out? Is the whole mission now pulled apart? I mean, Australia, as you say, is leaving some AFP officers in there to train, essentially?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Yes, but it also has served as a very, very valuable exercise in terms of not just regional security, but regional building of a governance structure. The fact that 15 countries participated – that’s what made RAMSI such a success. Certainly, Australia did contribute the lion’s share – the cost was about $3 billion, of which $2.8 billion we contributed. But as John Howard said in an opinion piece just a couple of days ago, the circumstances had been such that Australia did take this unusual step of participating in the affairs of another country. As it’s turned out, it was the best decision. Yes, it’s come at a price, but the reality is, Fran, that we live in the Pacific region. This is our region. It’s about regional stability and security, and as I have repeatedly said, the primary objective of the Government, as is the stability and security of Australia. But second to that is the stability and security of our region. And so, therefore, the objectives of RAMSI and the achievements of RAMSI play directly into this key objective for Australia.

FRAN KELLY:

John Howard – you mentioned that piece he wrote – he considers RAMSI and Australia’s involvement as one of his Government’s, and one of Australia’s, finest foreign policy achievements. That’s quite a statement! And at the time that the mission began, 2003, he echoed your sentiment there. He said a failed state in our region on our doorstep will jeopardise our own security. So, as far as Australia is concerned now, then, in terms of peace and security in the region – around the Solomons in particular – is it truly missioned accomplished there in the Solomon Islands?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well, it’s ‘mission ongoing’. It’s a different sort of mission, but let’s not forget that whilst RAMSI has been the focal point of the relationship between Australia and the Solomons, what I also did yesterday was sign a bilateral aid partnership to basically look at, you know, our presence, our aid assistance to the Solomon Islands. We are the largest donor to the Solomon Islands.

FRAN KELLY:

Can I just ask you about aid, because the Lowey Institute has said that the Solomons depends more on foreign aid now than when the RAMSI mission began and corruption remains an issue. Do you have those concerns?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:
Well, certainly, it is a state that’s gone through a very, very difficult circumstance. Our aid partnership is basically – of course, there’s a security and stability component to it, but it’s also about economic growth and reducing poverty. One of the key things that is an investment that we are very supportive of the Solomon Islands is the development of their Tina River Hydroelectric hydro project. This is really important because what this will do is allow the generation of energy, which is going to contribute substantially, particularly to Honiara’s electricity. Of course, energy is an issue everywhere, and of course as it is in the Solomons. But, of course, that’s going to have a marked effect of considerably reducing energy costs and supply, and provide greater supply of energy, and of course, in turn, affect business. The other thing, also, that we have of course signed is the PACER Plus agreement, and we are very, very pleased and Solomon Islands did play a leadership in negotiations on those, and we’re very pleased with that. So we are… It is an important country; it’s on our doorstep and it was the right thing for Australia to do.

FRAN KELLY:

You’re listening to RN Breakfast; it’s 4 minutes to 7. Our guest is Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells; she is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Matters back home – former-Prime Minister Tony Abbott. He’s been very outspoken, again, this week in a couple of radio interviews and a speech; he’s delivered, again, his alternative political manifesto for the Coalition – for political success, as he sees it; and he’s made some comments yesterday about our next generation of subs – says we should go nuclear in terms of subs. He’s also made it clear he’s not going anywhere in the short term, he’s going to stay in politics, and the divisions within your party have been on display this week. You were a supporter of Tony Abbott. Do you support these interventions that he has been making over the past two weeks?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Look, Tony… As I’ve said before, Fran, Tony of course as a backbencher is entitled to view his opinions…

FRAN KELLY:

Of course, but he’s not just any backbencher…

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

As a former Minister… As a former Prime Minister, he also carries a responsibility. There are two things that I would like to say. One is that as Prime Minister, Tony had the opportunity to do a whole range of things. He made certain decisions when he was Prime Minister. If now he says that he was wrong when he was Prime Minister, well, that’s a matter for him, but he had the opportunity to do a lot of things. Can I also – as I’ve also said on the record, particularly in relation to the climate issues, the renewable energy target came in under Tony. Paris was signed under Tony; he gave these commitments. Now, certainly, in relation to the climate issue, the 26 per cent was an ironclad commitment. Yes, ‘up to 28’ was – there is some flexibility in relation to that, but to actually now say that it was an aspiration when clearly his words, the documentation and everything clearly demonstrate that it was an ironclad commitment. So you can’t rewrite history. You can explain why you didn’t do a particular thing, or you did a particular thing in a particular way, but I would urge Tony not to try and rewrite history because all it’s doing is damaging his credibility.

FRAN KELLY:

Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Thank you.

FRAN KELLY:

Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells is the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. The RAMSI mission winds up today. Over the years, 7, 200 Australian military personnel and more than 1,700 Australian Federal Police have been involved, and six men and women died – Australian men and women died – whilst serving under RAMSI.

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