Interview with Richard Ewart - Pacific Beat, ABC Radio National

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Solomon Islands unrest, Fiji re-opening, Omicron COVID variant
29 November 2021

Richard Ewart:Sistas, Let's Talk coming up later in the week with your host Hilda Wayne. I'm Richard Ewart here on the Monday morning edition of Pacific Beat on ABC Radio Australia. Time to return to our top story now and the situation in Solomon Islands where the clean‑up continues after three days of unrest and the Government is facing a bill of around $AUD40 million to fix the damage. In a video address that was live-streamed last night, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare has reiterated that he won't be resigning.

Manasseh Sogavare, Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands:

It is very clear that the recent events were well planned and orchestrated to remove me as the Prime Minister for unsubstantiated reasons that have been distorted to misrepresent the facts. And I want to assure the nation that the Government is fully intact, and nothing will move us. We must and will never bow down to the evil intention of a few people. We must stand up to intimidation, bullying and violence. Our city Honiara was brought to its knees. However, we must be united to keep our country together.

Richard Ewart: Mr Sogavare has also thanked Papua New Guinea and Australia for the security support they sent in quickly late last week. And for more on how that Australian mission is going, we're joined by the Minister for Pacific and International Development Zed Seselja. Minister, good morning, thank you for joining us on Pacific Beat.

Minister Seselja: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

Richard Ewart: So, what are the latest reports that you're getting from the ground and particularly from the Australian contingent that is over there? Are you being told there's a sense of calm at the moment or might there be things bubbling under, as it were?

Minister Seselja: Yeah, obviously, still tense, but certainly a sense of much greater calm since we've seen that deployment of Australian police force personnel and ADF personnel. What's been really important is that we were asked to come in to help restore calm and order, and obviously the rioting and looting that we saw a couple of days ago was of great concern and it's, I think, very important and very positive that we're now seeing a sense of calm restored. What's also important on the ground, I think, is that where shops and things were damaged, which obviously had essential supplies, we are getting reports of those being restocked, shops, you know, ATMs for cash, which is very important, but also other essential supplies. So that's, I think, a very positive story at the moment, but, obviously, our AFP and our ADF continue to be there on the ground to help ensure an ongoing sense of peace and calm and stability. And, obviously, what we want to see going forward is the democratic processes of the Solomon Islands playing out.

Richard Ewart: Again, from the conversations that you would have had with the contingent on the ground and politically as well, I mean, what is your understanding of why this has happened at this time? Exactly what has provoked it?

Minister Seselja: Well, there's obviously a number of factors, and I will be careful not to sort of, I guess, give sort of ongoing – a running speculation on internal Solomon Islands issues, but obviously a number of points of tension and that's something that obviously is for the people of the Solomon Islands to work through. We make no judgement about their democratic processes, and we don't take sides in those political debates, which are very, very important, but what is important is that those political debates, those democratic, constitutional processes, are able to play out with peace and not with violence, and that's what we've been asked to come in and do.

Richard Ewart: Prime Minister Scott Morrison has talked about going into the Solomon Islands, to use his words, as a good family member. I'm assuming you would want to keep it that way. You don't want Australia to become any more deeply involved as they were for 10 years, of course, under the regional assistance mission.

Minister Seselja: I think it's important for people to understand that the situation as we understand it in these last few days and the tensions that have been clearly evident I don't think can be compared to the circumstances that led to our intervention through RAMSI and the long‑term intervention that it was. I think we're dealing with very different circumstances, and I think it's important that people have an understanding of that. But, of course, what we do as a good friend, as a good member of the family, as the Prime Minister has said, is we don't want to see shops being burnt, we don't want to see any sort of violence and, obviously, there was a request under our bilateral security treaty for us to come in. We anticipate at this point that it will be a relatively short-term intervention, but, of course, we will be monitoring the situation on the ground.

Richard Ewart: What about the whole China–Taiwan factor that has been mentioned in all this? Clearly, I think it's fair to say that the Australian Government's attitude to China and the Solomon Islands Government is very different, so I guess it's a very fine diplomatic line that you have to walk here.

Minister Seselja: Well, there's no doubt that there's been reports of that issue being an important debating point, important point of discussion, between different people within the Solomon Islands. Again, that's a matter for the people of the Solomon Islands as to how they resolve those issues, but we come in and whether it's a Chinese business, whether it's another business that was under threat, the Australian Government, through our AFP and through the ADF, are looking to protect critical infrastructure, but also protect the lives and livelihoods of people within the Solomon Islands whatever their background may be. We're not seeking to in any way, sort of, intervene in those kinds of discussions but, of course, you rightly point out that's been an important flashpoint, those recognitions. And again, it's a matter for the people of the Solomon Islands to work through.

Richard Ewart: One version of events is that in the province of Malaita where, of course, they're very much pro‑Taiwan, that the Premier there is, if you like, using that factor to get a better deal out of Honiara. He feels that Malaita, his province is not being well looked after, so a means to an end, if you like. Clearly, violence is not a very good means to an end, but can you see how that logic might play out in Malaita?

Minister Seselja: Again, I wouldn't want to give detailed commentary on that except to say that when it comes to issues of aid and support in the Solomons, Australia has been a very firm partner. We've sought to work to raise living standards in the Solomon Islands, to work on projects that help people get, you know, a better education, better health. Obviously, there's been great challenges for the Solomon Islands during COVID, just as there has been in all other parts of the world, really. So, we've been working with them on those issues, and so the Australian Government continues to have that goal in mind, but of course in the immediate term, what we are looking to do, of course, is make sure that order is restored. It appears that the early signs are good on that, but we'll be watching that very closely and our personnel will be in a relatively precarious position, so we're going to support them in whatever way we can.

Richard Ewart: Can you offer reassurances in terms of COVID‑19 protocols and the contingent that's gone over there, because of course, Solomon Islands has been COVID-free in the community up until now and, unfortunately, having to invite in these contingents in to support them, they run the risk, I suppose, that someone might get through the loophole as it were?

Minister Seselja: Yeah. We, obviously, take those issues very seriously and so we'll have consistent and constant testing of our personnel who are there. I think they're going to be doing every-48-hours testing, so they will be wearing masks and the like, so, you know, there's no doubt that that's a legitimate concern when you have people coming from overseas, but, of course, we take those COVID protocols very, very seriously and all the measures that can be in place to protect people from potential spread of COVID will be in place.

Richard Ewart: So, do you see what is happening at the moment then, that it's simply about calming the situation down, getting things back to normal, whatever normal may be, and then after that Australia would step back or might there be a role for Australia to play in helping the Solomon Islands wrestle with the deeper issues that appear to underlie this?

Minister Seselja: Well, our task – we've been asked by the Solomon Islands Government, and I think broadly it's been expressed, there's been political support across the island in Solomon Islands expressed for our intervention or our response coming in and supporting the Solomon Islands Government. So, we've been asked to do that under a bilateral security treaty. So, it's only at the request of the Solomon Islands Government. So that's the first point to make. In terms of the length or the duration and any future role, it's far too early to speculate at this stage. What we've said is we're coming in to restore calm, to restore order. We believe it will be a relatively short-term deployment but anything beyond that is a matter for, you know, further discussions and further consideration.

Richard Ewart: Is it likely there could be additional troops or police sent in as part of that contingent or do you feel that things are right at the moment?

Minister Seselja: Look, we think the numbers are about right. There has been a bit of – obviously there's been a number of flights that have come in bringing in personnel, so obviously we will bring in personnel as needed, but at this stage there would be no sort of major changes to numbers, but certainly we could potentially see, you know, extras or extra support coming in or to reveal existing staff. So, that will be a matter for the AFP Commissioner working with the Royal Solomon Islands Police and, of course, the CDF, talking to the relevant authorities in the Solomon Islands. But the numbers we've got there at the moment are going to be perhaps about the right numbers but, obviously, decisions will be taken on a daily basis to see that – there's two issues here. One is obviously to make sure that we are restoring calm and restoring order and that's – as I say, early signs are good, but there's a way to go. But secondly obviously we take the safety of those personnel, those Australians who have gone in, very seriously and we'll make sure that that they have all the support that they need to do their jobs.

Richard Ewart: If I could ask you a broader question about the COVID‑19 situation now that we have the concerns surrounding this new variant, the Omicron variant, how do you see that in terms of the Pacific because a number of people in the field have already said this demonstrates how we need to assist, the richer countries, to help the poorer countries get their people vaccinated? And, of course, in PNG virtually nobody in the country has been vaccinated and there could be problems ahead. So, could you see Australia kind of trying to do more to sort that problem out? How you persuade people to get vaccinated in PNG, I don't know if we have the answer, but it needs to be done, doesn't it?

Minister Seselja: Well, certainly vaccination is the key and we have been supporting all of our Pacific neighbours in that to the tune of over two million doses into the Pacific and over eight million now into our broader region, and we stand ready to do more. You're right to point out that in PNG the rates have been much lower than in most other countries and that's a significant concern. It's been no shortage of effort on our part in terms of both doses, AUSMAT teams, equipment, working against vaccine hesitancy. So, we are very conscious of that. I think the latest variant doesn't fundamentally change the situation; it just reminds us of the need and the importance of getting vaccinated, and that's something we've been working very hard on in the Pacific. But, as you say, PNG has presented particular challenges, but we'll continue to work with the PNG Government to that end.

Richard Ewart: So, with Fiji about to open up to international tourists on Wednesday, I guess it was always going to be a calculated risk. I mean, is it a calculated risk worth taking at this stage with the new variant?

Minister Seselja: Well, look, I think it's important that we don't in any way overreact. Obviously, there's a lot of caution being rightly shown until there's a better understanding of this new variant but here in Australia we're taking moves to open up. Obviously, there are some safeguards that have been announced in relation to this new variant. So, I think it's important that we just get a better understanding of it, but I would like to see a continued cautious, responsible, reasonable opening. We certainly can't stay locked up forever, and that's not been the view of the Australian Government, and clearly, it's not the view of the Fijian Government. But the Fijian Government in reopening is doing it with a heavily vaccinated population and, of course, with all sorts of COVID protocols in place.

Richard Ewart: You, of course, were in Fiji quite recently. Did you get a sense of high anticipation with the thought of tourists coming back, because tourism money is so important to the country?

Minister Seselja: Yeah, there is a lot of excitement, and the bookings are very, very strong particularly from Australia and so I know there's a lot of Australians who are very excited about being able to travel again and obviously not being able to travel to some other parts of the country makes that even more important to people. But yes, a lot of anticipation. Obviously, a lot of jobs in places like Fiji hinge on tourism. They have been hit very hard economically during this time, and that's why I'm really pleased we've been able to work with them to have such high vaccination rates. Over a million Australian doses have gone into Fiji, so we've stood side by side with them and that reopening that they're anticipating for 1 December is very keenly anticipated and will be an absolute lifeline economically.

Richard Ewart: Minister, we'll leave it there. Thank you very much indeed for joining us on Pacific Beat this morning. We appreciate your time.

Minister Seselja: My pleasure. Thanks very much.

Richard Ewart: That's Australia's Minister for the Pacific and International Development Zed Seselja with Australia's perspective as far as the Solomon Islands situation is concerned; and thoughts, too, on that new variant of COVID‑19 and Fiji opening up once again to tourists this Wednesday, December 1.


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