Media conference with Prime Minister Solomon Islands, The Hon Danny Philip,
Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, the Hon Richard Marles, and
Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, Senator David Feeney

Solomon Islands

Transcript, E&OE

28 June 2011

Prime Minister Philip: We have the Hon Richard Marles with us today. We have had discussions relating to his visit here. He is basically here related to the Enhanced Consultative Mechanism (ECM) between SIG and RAMSI. Of course as Australia is the biggest participant and donor for RAMSI he is here to meet with our people and the RAMSI people in Honiara. And that (ECM) took place this morning at the Mendana Hotel. Later on, this Thursday this information will be shared with the Forum Ministerial Standing Committee on RAMSI.

We have (also) had discussions on RAMSI on its exit program, not exit but transition, that is going on at the moment, the sizing down. We do acknowledge that the trend will definitely (be that we) will have to increase our involvement on the bilateral front. I acknowledge Australia’s contribution to RAMSI and the fact that during this particular trend that as a government, Solomon Islands will have to invest in its institutions and (that this responsibility) will most likely be handed over to the government for sustainability and (so that) we improve on what we can do for ourselves and this country.

Very briefly we touched on Fiji. We all expressed strong support for Fiji to get back onto the road to democracy. We would like to see a positive road map for Fiji getting the country back on track and for the country to become again a member of the Forum as well as the Commonwealth family of nations. I spoke briefly on the part of Solomons Islands on our particular position on Fiji in terms of keeping Fiji in some dialogue and embracing Fiji in someway. I am not speaking on behalf of the MSG (Melanesian Spearhead Group); this is Solomon Islands particular position in that regard. Richard Marles expressed a strong desire for the MSG to play a very important role; if that is our particular position with Fiji we should be at the forefront as well in helping Fiji move forward in the right direction. Of course we will be doing that as soon as we know the future of Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister and I know Sato Kilman has just come back into the fold in Vanuatu and we should be able to be together again to support Fiji in getting Fiji into democratic processes. We did not talk too much about what the current situation is in Fiji but I think we have come to some understanding that as Forum countries, as MSG countries, we are in a position to get into positive dialogue with Fiji to get (Fiji back on) the road to democracy. I will leave Richard to expand on some of the things we talked about.

Marles: Thank you, Prime Minister. It’s a real pleasure to be back here in Solomon Islands again, and here with the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, Senator David Feeney. For both of us, it’s our second visit to Solomon Islands.

We're here to, as the Prime Minister said, to participate in the Forum Ministerial Standing Committee on RAMSI, which will be happening on Thursday, which follows on from the meeting that the Prime Minister opened this morning.

But it’s been a great opportunity to have a conversation with the Prime Minister this afternoon about a number of matters of interest to both Australia and Solomon Islands. And I think the first thing I want to say is how important we regard our relationship with the Solomon Islands.

Solomon Islands is a critical player in the Pacific. And this is very much our collective neighbourhood. Having the very best relations with the countries in our neighbourhood is so central to Australia’s national interest and our foreign policy. And we really do regard our relationship with Solomon Islands as very important in that context.

We've had a really good conversation, as the Prime Minister said, about RAMSI and the future of RAMSI. RAMSI has been a wonderful success story for the Pacific region and of course for Solomon Islands itself. It is held up by the UN as a model for interventions which come with the acceptance of the host government and the support of the people. The improved security environment is there for all to see as the most immediate achievement of RAMSI since 2003.

Of course RAMSI was never imagined to be a permanent situation. It was always going to be something that was here on a temporary basis, and we do now need to look at the way in which there is a transition going forward, as the Prime Minister has said. We welcome comments the Prime Minister has made in relation to that. I think now is the time, whilst there is a significant RAMSI presence, to really be working on those areas of capacity, to make sure that, as the transition occurs to a normal bilateral relationship between Australia and Solomon Islands, that the Solomons is in a position to move forward in its own way. And that is obviously not a process which is going to happen overnight, and it’s a critical judgement as to the pace in which that transition occurs. But we'll be working closely with the Solomon Islands to make sure we get that question right.

As the Prime Minister said, we did, amongst other matters, talk about Fiji, and I really appreciate the comments that the Prime Minister has just made in relation to Fiji. We do all hold a desire to see Fiji return to a state of democracy at the earliest opportunity. Democracy is a core value of the Pacific and things won't be right in the Pacific until we see Fiji returned to that democratic state. So long as that hasn't occurred, I think there is, for all of us, a significant pain associated with looking at Fiji in this state, and looking at the state of relations within the Pacific as a result.

The MSG undoubtedly has a critical role to play in relation to the future of Fiji. Melanesian solidarity, I think, will be a critical part of the pathway forward to seeing Fiji return to a state of democracy. Again I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s comments in relation to that. We take those comments on board as we move forward to the Pacific Islands Forum in the next couple of months in New Zealand.

We did raise one other thing, which I would like to mention. And it goes to, again, the question of building capacity here in the Solomon Islands, for a world in some point in the future, which is post-RAMSI. That is in the field of education. And today I was really happy to be able to announce, with the Prime Minister, that Australia will be committing an extra A$6 million, over the next eighteen months, towards the development of education functions here in the Solomon Islands. It brings our commitment to the support of basic education in the Solomon Islands to $13 million dollars since 2010. And this $6 million dollars will be particularly focused on improving the quality of school education, and the development of schools training.

That, together with the other money that we have put forward through our bilateral aid program, has really seen some important steps taken forward in the field of education. We have seen the removal of fees, for example, amongst primary school education. This, in turn, is seeing a really significant increase in the rates of enrolment of children in primary school education, which is so important to the future of the country.

If you're talking about the building of capacity, for any country — and this is as much for Australia as any country in the world — you cannot do more than spend money on education. And I know the Prime Minister as a former school principal himself, and a former educationalist himself will appreciate this. There is no better spend of money than the field of education. It genuinely is an investment in the future of the country, so we're very pleased to be able to make that announcement today as part of our visit.

Questions:

SIBC: This $6 million is to meet a request from Prime Minister Danny Philip to Australia. A lot of graduates coming back from overseas can't get jobs and end up driving buses. Is this, is education, a priority Prime Minister?

Prime Minister Philip:  I think education is always a priority for this government, the past government. We have standing arrangements and relationships with Australia in the development sector, mostly in education. Australia has been a very important donor in terms of education and abroad, in terms of their own institutions in Australia, (for) Solomon Islands students. I think Australia sees the need for skills training. Skills training is a big vacuum. Ever since the Honiara Technical Institute vanished, that aspect of skills training in that middle management area, there has been a great lack in the country. We've always assumed that need as a government but I would like to thank Australia and the Government of Australia to see fit at such a time as this to give us the money as a beginning to look at middle management skills training in Solomon Islands.

Marles: Australia and Solomon Islands have signed a Partnership for Development which is an agreed statement of priorities between the two countries about the deployment of development assistance that Australia provides to Solomon Islands. A key part of the Partnership for Development is in the provision of Government services particularly in the area of health and education. So, this expenditure that we're announcing today is very consistent with the priorities that have been laid out between both Governments of Solomon Islands and Australia in our Partnership for Development.

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