TRACEE HUTCHISON: Australia’s Parliamentary Secretary to the Pacific Richard Marles is in Honiara tonight and, in fact, dining with Prime Minister Lilo. Richard Marles says any change of position by the Solomons would be disappointing but it’s not clear to him that’s what Prime Minister Lilo has announced. I spoke to him earlier.
RICHARD MARLES: The question was asked of the Prime Minister whether or not he was supporting the Japanese position. I must say I don't think the answer to that question was clear, to me at least. In any event, Australia’s position on this is clear. We don't support the Japanese program of ’scientific' whaling. Where I absolutely agree with the comments of Prime Minister Lilo is that we support the role that science has to play in relation to the whole issue of the ecology of whales, which is why we have been very keen to support scientific measures around whales which don't involve the killing of whales. Our position in relation to that is that it is possible to undertake the science in a way which doesn't involve the killing of whales.
TRACEE HUTCHISON: No that’s not what Prime Minister Lilo said. He supported ’scientific' whaling to support population studies and indeed we know that Solomon Islands has in the past both not turned up to the IWC and indeed abstained from voting the previous time, not voted in a block with other Pacific island nations on this, so this does mark a significant shift for the Government of Solomon Islands.
RICHARD MARLES: Well again, let me be clear. To the extent that anybody is supporting a position of ’scientific' whaling where whales are being killed then, obviously, that’s a position that we do not support and we have made our position in relation to Japan clear. If indeed that’s where any country is going and there is a change in position to that then we'd be disappointed.
TRACEE HUTCHISON: We know Gordon Darcy Lilo is flying to Japan tomorrow to discuss aid amongst other things with the Japanese Government. Japan does support other island nations through fishing rights for tuna in the region, how extensive is Japan’s financial investment in Solomon Islands Richard Marles do you know?
RICHARD MARLES: I'm not aware specifically of their contribution to the Solomons but I am aware of Japan’s role in the region and it is a very constructive role. Most Pacific leaders, and myself, will be visiting Japan later this month to talk to them about their program in the region. We aim to be as constructive a partner as we possibly can with Japan in terms of its participation in the region.
TRACEE HUTCHISON: It’s a pretty contentious investment in the region though you'd have to agree, particularly on the issue of whaling and the Pacific island nations voting in a block on the issue, will you be raising this at your dinner with the Prime Minister tonight?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, I learnt about this afternoon. It’s a private dinner with the Prime Minister this evening. We'll raise a number of issues facing the Solomons at the moment. I have no doubt at some point we will talk about Japan during the evening given that both of us are off to Japan within the next couple of weeks.
But I would emphasise that while we have a difference with Japan on the issue of whaling, we do appreciate Japan’s participation in the region, the development assistance that they provide. We work closely with Japan on a number of projects and indeed the engagement that Japan is having with the region in a couple of weeks time in Okinawa is an attempt to make sure that they consult widely about the way in which they can best put to work their development assistance funds.
TRACEE HUTCHISON: All right let’s talk about the main reason that you've been in Solomon Islands this week, Richard Marles, in the lead up to a big regional conference and forum at the end of the week. A considerable portion of Australia’s aid money, some $240 million annually to Solomon Islands, a considerable portion goes to the regional assistance mission, RAMSI, which has been one of the great success stories for Australia’s role in the Pacific. Why has it been important for Australia to play a part in this?
RICHARD MARLES: It has been a success story in terms of Australia’s role in the Pacific but more than that, it’s been a success story for the Pacific region. The way in which the Pacific has come together to deal with what was a very difficult situation for one of its number due to the tensions Solomon Islands was experiencing back in 2003, and the intervention into a country that’s been extremely well received by the country - something like 86 per cent of people today support RAMSI’s involvement in Solomon Islands - it really has been a model for the world.
I think now, though, what we need to be looking at is how we transition from RAMSI being here to a more normal bilateral relationship between Australian and Solomon Islands; indeed, a series of bilateral relationships between each of the participant countries in RAMSI and Solomon Islands.
That’s important because the positive legacy of RAMSI only exists when we see Solomon Islands ultimately standing on its own two feet. There is enormous progress down that path right now and it is really important that we talk through the way in which that transition occurs. I would make the observation that here in Honiara tonight it is a completely different situation to eight-nine years ago during the tensions when there really was a situation of lawlessness in Solomon Islands. Now, law and order is established within Honiara, and indeed throughout the country, and that has resulted in significant economic growth since the time of the tensions. So it really has been a very positive legacy. It’s also a legacy that we've kind of got to complete through a proper transition to more normal bilateral relationships with the Solomons.
TRACEE HUTCHISON: You spent the day - well just over a night in fact in Nauru with the Prime Minister there, did you discuss the prospect of reopening the asylum seeker detention centre there now that Nauru is a signature to the UN Refugee Convention?
RICHARD MARLES: No, Tracee, we didn't. This always surprises people in the media. It actually did not come up at all. Nauru is a very important partner for Australia. It’s one of two countries in the world which gained its independence from Australia. In that sense, Nauru is a very special country to Australia. This was a really good opportunity for me, after briefly visiting there a month or so ago but not having visited overnight in Nauru since 2010, to have an opportunity to talk to them about where the country’s going, how they see the country’s future, how they see our relationship, how they see our relationship with them. There was also some good news for me to talk to them about. In the most recent Australian budget we had a significant increase in the development assistance budget to Nauru, by almost 30 per cent, so we talked about that as well.
We've also announced an extension of the seasonal workers program to many countries in the Pacific, including Nauru. It was a good opportunity to talk to them about the progress of reaching a memorandum of understanding with them which we hope in the not too distant future will see Nauruans coming to Australia and working in the horticulture industry.
So each of these issues has been very important to talk through.
TRACEE HUTCHISON: And that’s Australia’s Parliamentary Secretary to the Pacific, Richard Marles speaking from Honiara a short time ago and he’s dining with the Solomon Islands Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo this evening.
We have a longer version of that interview on our website; radioaustralia.net.au.
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